In this article:
- Drainage of excess fluid from the nasal passage is known as rhinorrhea or runny nose.
- The discharge associated with a runny nose is usually clear and watery, but it may also be viscous and thick.
- A runny nose may be due to any factor that causes inflammation and irritation in the nasal tissues, and the resulting distress can affect your quality of life.
- A runny nose can be managed usually with proper self-care and does not require the intake of prescription drugs such as antibiotics.
- A runny nose is frequent in teething infants and pregnant women.
- Taking preventive steps is advised. If the symptoms persist or worsen, seek immediate medical help.
What Is a Runny Nose?
A runny nose is characterized by excessive nasal discharge. Also known as rhinorrhea, it results from swelling or irritation in the nasal tissue, which can be due to various reasons.
The discharge may range from a thin clear fluid to thick mucus, which runs out of the nose, down the throat, or both.
Rhinorrhea and rhinitis are interchangeably used when referring to a runny nose. However, rhinitis refers to the inflammation of the nasal tissues, which often causes a runny nose. Rhinorrhea, on the other hand, is the medical term for a runny nose, referring to the discharge of a thin and clear nasal fluid.
The presence of pathogens (virus or bacteria) or other foreign particles in the nasal passageways can stimulate the overproduction of mucus as a clearing response.
The body may be unable to process the excess mucus, resulting in the accumulation of the fluid, which is then discharged.
The excess mucus may also impede airflow by blocking the nasal passage, thus causing nasal congestion.
The Nose as an Immune Barrier
The mucous membrane is a thin, moist layer of tissue that lines the nasal passageway. Its primary function is mucus production. It also plays a role in moistening and warming up the inhaled air.
Mucus is a thick, sticky fluid, often known as snot, that prevents the entry of germs, dust, and other particles into the lungs by capturing them.
This function of the mucus is assisted by nasal hair, which catches larger particles such as pollen and dirt.
The entrapped foreign particles are then expelled out of the nose by sneezing. The back of the nose and air passages are lined with microscopic hair-like organelles known as cilia.
They have a rhythmic waving motion (back and forth movement) that helps in removing the foreign particles along with the mucus and expelling them out of the lungs, sinuses, and back of the nose.
This mechanism of protecting the airways is known as mucociliary clearance.
Importance of Mucus
Mucus, also known as the airway surface liquid (ASL), is a fluid that forms a thin protective layer on the lumen (lining) of the airway. It helps in preventing the entry of chemicals and foreign particles into the lungs through mucociliary clearance.
Mucus is composed of water, ions, and various macromolecules. Some of these components aid in its role as a protectant by providing antioxidants, antiprotease, and antimicrobial properties.
Causes of a Runny Nose
A runny nose can occur as a result of various reasons, including:
- Sinus infection
- Common cold
- Consumption of spicy foods
- Allergies such as hay fever
- Exposure to hot or cold temperature
- Pregnancy (pregnancy rhinitis)
- Use of certain types of over-the-counter nasal sprays or drops for more than three days
- Hormonal changes
- Enlarged adenoids
- Nasal polyps (sac-like growths on the nasal lining or sinuses)
- Vasomotor rhinitis (a chronic form of rhinitis that causes rhinorrhea, intermittent sneezing, and congestion)
Nasal congestion often accompanies a runny nose, and the condition may resolve on its own in a week.
However, if the ailment persists, it is necessary to seek medical help as a lack of treatment can cause headaches, earaches, cough, and other complications.
Symptoms of a Runny Nose
Rhinorrhea, or runny nose, produce the following symptoms:
- Excessive mucus production
- Nasal discharge
- Difficulty in breathing
- Nasal congestion
- Headache or facial pain due to an increase in pressure, caused by the entrapment of air in the nasal cavities
- Sinusitis, if the sinus passage is blocked
- Ear pain or infection caused by plugging up of the Eustachian tube with mucus
- Sore throat or cough resulting from postnasal drip
Generally, rhinorrhea does not require the intervention of medicines and can be managed with self-care.
Few cases may require the use of medications, depending on the reason behind the runny nose. For example, the doctor may prescribe medications if your runny nose is an outcome of a common cold.
Over-the-counter medications can help in providing relief from the symptoms. However, it is recommended to avoid giving over-the-counter cold medicines to children below 4 years of age without consulting a doctor.
Home Remedies for a Runny Nose
The following self-care tips may help alleviate the problem of a runny nose:
- Drink ample amounts of water.
- Rest your body.
- Take a warm shower.
- Use a rubber suction bulb to squeeze out the mucus from the nose of young children.
- Steam inhalation can be helpful for adults and older children.
- Use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier to maintain moisture levels indoor. However, avoid making the room excessively humid, and clean the vaporizer daily with Lysol or bleach.
- Perform nasal irrigation using a saline solution. Use a neti pot (teapot with a long spout) to pour the solution into one nostril.
Allow the solution to run through your nasal cavity and sinuses and out of the other nostril along with the mucus.
- Use a saline spray as a nasal wash three to four times a day to clear the mucus from your nose. (2)(3)
For this, you can:
- Use an over-the-counter saline spray as directed.
- Make a saline spray at home by mixing ½ teaspoon (3 grams) of salt and a pinch of baking soda in 1 cup (240mL) of warm water.
- Drink hot drinks to get immediate relief from a runny nose and other symptoms of the flu and common colds such as sore throat, tiredness, chilliness, sneezing, and cough. It can also help ease nasal airflow. (4)
- Apply a warm compress to your forehead and nose multiple times a day. This helps in subsiding congestion and sinus pressure. You can also moisten a washcloth with warm water and use it as a compress.
- Consume ginger in the form of a concoction.
- Try other herbs in the form of tinctures or teas, such as nettle, yarrow, turmeric, and sage.
Note: Refrain from giving honey to children below 1 year of age. (7)
Some General Queries
Why is a runny nose a concern?
Rhinorrhea, or a runny nose, often resolves on its own. However, if the symptoms persist for long, it may be indicative of severe complications such as nasal polyps, cysts, tumors, and choanal atresia.
Consult a medical practitioner at the earliest if the symptoms do not subside in 10 days or are accompanied by a fever.
Can anxiety cause a runny nose?
A runny nose is usually the effect of an ongoing immune response or the body’s preparation to respond to a pathogen.
Anxiety and long-term stress can impair the immune system, resulting in rhinorrhea. While a runny nose is not a serious concern, it adds to the distress a person undergoes with anxiety.
What is the treatment for a runny nose caused by anxiety?
According to doctors, the treatment for a runny nose caused by anxiety is similar to the treatment for a runny nose from an allergy.
Hence, allergy medications or natural remedies such as honey can be used.
However, it is still important to take measures toward reducing your anxiety to manage your rhinorrhea and improve your quality of life as well.
Can antibiotics be used to treat a runny nose?
While green snot can be indicative of a bacterial infection, a runny nose is often a symptom of a common cold caused by rhinoviruses, on which antibiotics have no effect.
The body initiates immune responses to fight back the infection, during which the mucus may turn white or yellow.
During recovery, green mucus may be produced due to recolonization by bacteria that are usually found in the nose.
Therefore, the green snot associated with a runny nose is normal and does not always require antibiotics. The doctor may prescribe some other medications to help relieve symptoms such as cough and fever.
What are the long-term effects of a runny nose?
The long-term effects of a runny nose vary with its causes. Nasal congestion and irritation can interfere with your daily activities and disturb your sleep, thus impacting your quality of life. Additionally, breathing through the nose due to nasal congestion may hamper facial development in children.
A runny nose caused by acute sinus infections may develop into severe problems if not treated.
Rhinorrhea accompanied by nasal obstruction can also result in hearing loss and ear infections since the middle ear is linked to the back of the nose (nasopharynx) for drainage.
Is there a need for medical treatment for a runny nose?
Most cases of rhinorrhea clear up without any medical treatment. Over-the-counter drugs are available to provide relief from its symptoms, but they may have side effects such as drowsiness. You can also use home remedies to alleviate the symptoms.
If the runny nose is recurrent, it may be due to allergies and requires medical intervention. Antihistamines can be used if the condition is caused by histamine buildup.
Can allergy triggers cause a runny nose?
Allergies are a common reason for a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. Triggers such as animal dander, mold, dust mites, and cockroaches are indoor allergens that can cause year-round symptoms.
Thus, avoiding exposure to allergens is recommended to manage rhinorrhea.
Can pregnancy cause a runny nose?
Nasal congestion during pregnancy is known as pregnancy rhinitis or vasomotor rhinitis of pregnancy. It affects 20% of pregnant women. The patients often report a runny nose with watery to thick clear discharge.
It is speculated that the hormonal changes associated with pregnancy may be the reason behind pregnancy rhinitis.
Do babies get a runny nose when teething?
A 2011 study demonstrated that a runny nose is a common occurrence with teething. Other symptoms including loss of appetite, rash, increase salivation, irritability, diarrhea, and sleep disturbance may also be associated with primary tooth eruption. (8)
How to have a proper sleep when having a runny nose?
A runny nose can interrupt your sleep and thus affect your overall health and mood. To alleviate the problem, it is recommended to use effective treatments at bedtime and correct your posture.
For instance, lying on your back may help subside the problem as the mucus will travel down into your pharynx instead of coming out of the nose.
On the other hand, lying on your side may lead to mild discharge. Avoid sleeping facedown, as it will aggravate the problem.
Preventing a Runny Nose
Avoiding the factors that trigger a runny nose can help in preventing the condition. These triggers include:
- Allergens such as dust, animal dander, pollen, mold.
- Irritants such as cigarette smoke and sudden humidity changes.
- Close contact with people having upper respiratory tract infections such as a cold.
- Excessive use of nasal decongestants, as it can aggravate your symptoms.
When to See a Doctor
Rhinorrhea causes discomfort but generally clears up on its own. However, in rare cases, it may be indicative of a severe problem.
It is recommended to visit a doctor if:
- The condition is prolonged (lasts for 10 days or more).
- A runny nose is accompanied by fever.
- The mucus is yellow or green, accompanied by fever or sinus pain (may be indicative of bacterial infection).
- Blood is present in the nasal discharge, although small amounts of blood can be normal with a mild infection or even with inflammation caused by allergies.
- Head injury is followed by a persistent clear discharge.
Drainage of excessive fluid from the nose is known as rhinorrhea or runny nose. The discharge is a thin or thick mucus that may be opaque or clear.
It can be either a constant or an intermittent problem that may occur due to many reasons. While it can be discomforting, rhinorrhea often resolves on its own.
In some cases, it may indicate a severe condition and require proper treatment. Rhinorrhea is a severe condition for infants.