Top 9 Congestion Causes
1. Alcohol Use
Congestion and stuffy nose can affect those with alcohol sensitivity and intolerance. Those who experience congestion after drinking alcohol may also experience symptoms of flushing, nausea, and diarrhea. Cutting back on alcohol use or avoiding alcohol completely can often prevent congestion in those with sensitivity problems.
Congestion may be caused by an allergic reaction to irritants such as pollen, dust, cigarette smoke, and pet dander. People who suffer from allergies will often experience congestion along with sneezing, itching, and tearing of the eyes.
3. Overuse of Nasal Sprays or Drops
Congestion may be caused by rebound congestion, which is inflammation of the nasal passages from the overuse of topical nasal decongestants. Rebound congestion usually occurs when people use over-the-counter nasal sprays or drops more frequently than directed by the label. Congestion caused by the overuse of nasal decongestants can be treated and resolved by stopping the use of that medicine.
4. Deviated Septum
A deviated septum occurs when the thin wall between the nasal passages is displaced to one side to result in one side of the nose being narrower than the other. Congestion is a common symptom of a deviated septum due to the narrowed nasal passage, along with frequent nosebleeds, sinus infections, and headaches.
Fluctuations in the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) during pregnancy can trigger a wide range of bodily changes and symptoms, including congestion. Pregnancy-related congestion occurs most commonly during the second trimester and usually resolves itself later in the pregnancy or after childbirth.
6. Nasal Polyps
Nasal polyps are soft, benign growths on the sinuses and lining of the nose. Large nasal polyps can block the nasal airway to cause congestion, as well as sneezing, snoring, headache, and loss of smell or taste. Nasal polyps can be effectively treated using corticosteroids, allergy medicines, antibiotics, and surgery.
7. Certain Medications
Congestion and stuffy nose are side effects of certain over-the-counter medicines and prescription medications. Aspirin, ibuprofen, beta-blockers, and high blood pressure medications have been linked to congestion, as well as sedatives, birth control pills, and antidepressants.
8. Secondhand Smoke
Cigarettes and other tobacco products release toxins and chemicals into the air that can trigger congestion, along with cough, eye irritation, and runny nose. Adults and children who are frequently exposed to secondhand smoke are prone to suffering from congestion.
Physical and psychological stress can lead to problems with congestion, along with sore throat and fever. Stress increases the body’s production of cortisol and can trigger long-term inflammatory responses when left unresolved. Stress-related congestion can often be improved with proper stress management.
Possible Health Conditions Related to Congestion
1. Common Cold
Congestion is one of many common cold symptoms, along with sneezing, sore throat, cough, and fever. American adults suffer an average of 2 to 3 colds per year. The common cold can be treated at home by getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, and using a humidifier or mist vaporizer. People experience common colds more frequently during the fall and winter seasons, though colds can occur at any time of the year.
Influenza is a respiratory illness that usually comes on suddenly and triggers symptoms including cough, fever, sore throat, body aches, and congestion. People at high risk for severe illness from influenza include older adults aged 65 and older, women who are pregnant, children aged 5 and younger, and people with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. Mild cases of influenza can usually be effectively treated by resting at home, while more severe cases can be treated using antiviral drugs.
Sinusitis is the inflammation and swelling of the sinuses, which are hollow spaces of air within the bones surrounding the nose. Sinusitis can cause congestion, as well as fever, fatigue, cough, and weakness. Treatments for sinusitis may include decongestants, mist vaporizers, antibiotics, and over-the-counter pain relievers.
4. Coronavirus (COVID-19)
COVID-19 is a contagious respiratory illness that can spread from person to person by droplets produced when the infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. Congestion is a common symptom of COVID-19, along with dry cough, fever, difficulty breathing, and fatigue. Symptoms of COVID-19 usually set in within 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus, and can usually be managed at home with plenty of rest.
5. Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by frequent pauses of breathing during sleep due to narrowed or blocked airways. Congestion is closely linked to obstructive sleep apnea due to the way this symptom can make it difficult to breathe through the nose while sleeping. Studies also suggest that the repetitive closing and reopening of the airway in obstructive sleep apnea can cause inflammation of the mucosa, which contributes to congestion. Obstructive sleep apnea can be effectively treated by losing excess weight, avoiding the use of drugs and alcohol, and using a continuous positive airway pressure device while sleeping. 
6. Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis
Formerly known as Wegener's granulomatosis, this rare disease is the inflammation of blood vessels and mainly affects the sinuses, nose, lungs, trachea, and kidneys. Common symptoms of granulomatosis with polyangiitis include congestion, cough, shortness of breath, and frequent nosebleeds. This disease can often be effectively treated using medications such as prednisone, methotrexate, and rituximab.
Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Congestion
- When did you start to experience congestion?
- What other symptoms are you experiencing with your congestion?
- What over-the-counter medicines and prescription medications are you currently taking?
- Do you experience congestion after drinking alcohol?
- Do you suffer from allergies?
- Are you frequently exposed to secondhand smoke?
- Have you recently come into close contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID-19?
- Have you recently attended an event or gathering at which lots of people were present?
- Have you been in close proximity to anyone outside of your household?
Congestion May Also be Known as:
- Stuffy nose
- Nasal congestion
- Non-allergic rhinitis
Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
- Mayo Clinic. Alcohol intolerance. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-intolerance/symptoms-causes/syc-20369211
- MedlinePlus. Allergic rhinitis. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000813.htm
- National Library of Medicine. Rhinitis Medicamentosa. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538318/
- Harvard Health Publishing. Deviated Septum. https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/deviated-septum-a-to-z
- Stanford Children’s Health. The Second Trimester. https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=second-trimester-85-P01234
- MedlinePlus. Nasal polyps. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001641.htm
- Mayo Clinic. Nonallergic rhinitis. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nonallergic-rhinitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351229
- National Library of Medicine. Respiratory Effects in Adults from Exposure to Secondhand Smoke. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44316/
- The University of British Columbia. Stress, Cortisol, and the Immune System: What Makes Us Get Sick? https://www.scq.ubc.ca/stress-cortisol-and-the-immune-system-what-makes-us-get-sick/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Cold. https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/for-patients/common-illnesses/colds.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu Symptoms & Complications. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu Treatment: What You Need to Know. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/treatment/treatment.htm
- MedlinePlus. Sinusitis. https://medlineplus.gov/sinusitis.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of Coronavirus. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
- MedlinePlus. Obstructive sleep apnea - adults. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000811.htm
- National Library of Medicine. Nasal pathologies in patients with obstructive sleep apnoea. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6734203/
- European Respiratory Journal. Upper airway and systemic inflammation in obstructive sleep apnoea. https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/48/4/1108
- American College of Rheumatology. Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (Wegener's). https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Granulomatosis-with-Polyangitis-Wegners