Decongestants for Stuffy Nose: How They Work, Benefits, and Risks


How can you decongest the nose?

One way to decongest the nose is to use saline nasal sprays or rinses, which can help to clear mucus and irritants from the nasal passages. Over-the-counter (OTC) decongestant medications, such as decongestant nasal sprays, tablets, or liquids, can also help. In some cases, prescription decongestants may be necessary.

Get started
Wyndly Allergy

Allergy meds not working?

Better allergy treatment is here.

Allergies are a common affliction that affects millions of people worldwide. One of the most prevalent symptoms of allergies is nasal congestion, which can cause significant discomfort and disrupt daily activities.

Decongestants are a popular treatment option for alleviating nasal congestion. Available in various forms, these medications can provide quick and effective relief from congestion. But it is important to understand how to take them safely and avoid potential side effects. Learn about the different types of decongestants available, how they work, who can take them, and what alternative treatment options are available.

What Is a Decongestant?

A decongestant is used to relieve nasal congestion. This congestion is often caused by inflammation and excess mucus production in the nasal passages. Decongestants work by narrowing your nose's blood vessels, reducing swelling and congestion. They can be taken orally as tablets, capsules, or liquids.

Some decongestants can also be applied directly to the nasal passages as sprays or drops. Decongestants can provide temporary relief of symptoms, but they do not cure the underlying cause of nasal congestion. It is important to use decongestants as directed and to speak with a healthcare provider if symptoms persist or worsen.

What Are Decongestants Used For?

Decongestants are primarily used to relieve nasal congestion associated with allergies, colds, and sinus infections. They can also relieve ear congestion, which can occur as a result of nasal congestion. In addition, decongestants may be used to relieve symptoms associated with nasal polyps and other nasal conditions.

How Do Decongestants Help Allergies?

Decongestants work by narrowing the blood vessels in the nasal tissues, which reduces swelling and congestion in the nasal passages. This can help to alleviate symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, and postnasal drip that are commonly associated with allergies.

However, it's important to note that decongestants do not address the underlying cause of allergies, which is an immune system response to allergens such as pollen, dust mites, or pet dander. Thus, decongestants provide short-term relief for allergy symptoms. For more effective and sustainable allergy treatment, other approaches may be necessary.

Types of Decongestants

There are two main types of decongestants: oral and nasal. Here’s a closer look at each.

Topical Decongestants

Topical decongestants include medicines such as oxymetazoline, phenylephrine, and naphazoline. They are usually available as nasal sprays or nose drops and are applied directly to the inside of the nose. These decongestants work by constricting the blood vessels in the nasal passages, reducing inflammation and swelling, and allowing more air to flow through.

One of the main benefits of these decongestants is that they work quickly, often providing relief within minutes. They are particularly effective at relieving nasal congestion caused by colds and allergies. However, they should not be used for more than a few days at a time, as they can cause rebound congestion, where the symptoms return even worse than before.

Some common brand names for topical decongestants include Afrin, Neo-Synephrine, and Vicks Sinex. As with all medications, it is important to read and follow the label instructions carefully. Overuse or misuse of these medications can lead to serious side effects, including high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing.

Oral Decongestants

Oral decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine, are taken by mouth. They are often used to treat nasal congestion caused by allergies, the common cold, hay fever, and sinus infections.

One of the main benefits of oral decongestants is that they can provide longer-lasting relief than topical decongestants. However, they’re also likely to cause more side effects, such as nervousness, insomnia, and increased heart rate.

Pseudoephedrine, in particular, is a popular oral decongestant but is regulated in many countries due to its potential for misuse. In some places, it can only be purchased with a prescription or is only available in limited quantities.

Who Can Take Decongestants?

Most people can take decongestants safely and without serious side effects. However, certain groups of people should avoid decongestants or only take them under the guidance of a healthcare provider. Children under the age of six should not take decongestants without a doctor's approval.

Decongestants can have serious side effects in young children. Older children and teenagers can take decongestants, but they should be closely monitored for side effects such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and difficulty sleeping.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also avoid decongestants, as they can potentially harm the developing fetus or infant. People with certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, glaucoma, and prostate enlargement, should avoid decongestants or only take them under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

How to Take Decongestants

Decongestants are available in different forms, including nasal sprays, drops, tablets, and capsules. The specific instructions for taking decongestants will depend on the type of medication and the symptoms being treated. However, some general tips can help maximize the effectiveness of decongestants and minimize the risk of side effects.

Read the Label Carefully

When taking any medication, it is important to read the label carefully and understand the instructions for use. Decongestants come in different forms, and the dosage and administration instructions may vary depending on the medication. Some decongestants may have specific directions for children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, and individuals with certain medical conditions, so it is important to check the label and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns or questions.

Drink Plenty of Fluids

Decongestants can cause dryness in the nasal passages, throat, and mouth, leading to discomfort and irritation. To prevent dehydration and ease these symptoms, it is important to drink plenty of fluids, such as water, tea, and juices. Avoid sugary beverages, as they can worsen dehydration and interfere with the effectiveness of decongestants.

Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol

Caffeine and alcohol can interact with decongestants and cause adverse effects, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and nervousness. In addition, caffeine and alcohol can dehydrate the body and worsen the dryness caused by decongestants. To avoid these risks, it is best to avoid caffeine and alcohol while taking decongestants.

Time It Right

Some decongestants, such as tablets and capsules, may work better if taken at night before bed. This can help alleviate symptoms during the night and promote better sleep. However, nasal sprays and drops may be more effective in the morning to clear out any congestion that has built up overnight.

Avoid Certain Medications

Some medicines, such as beta-blockers and tricyclic antidepressants, can interfere with the effectiveness of decongestants or increase the risk of side effects. If you are taking any other medicines, be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking decongestants.

Avoid Using It for Too Long

Nasal decongestants can provide temporary relief of congestion, but prolonged use can lead to rebound nasal congestion, where your nasal passageway becomes more congested than before. This is because most decongestants can cause the blood vessels in the nasal passages to constrict, leading to a decrease in blood flow and oxygen supply. This makes the nose stuffiness worse. To prevent rebound congestion and other side effects, decongestants should not be used for more than three days without consulting a doctor, even if you still have a blocked or stuffy nose.

Follow the Doctor's Advice

If the symptoms persist or worsen after taking a nasal decongestant, it is important to seek medical advice. Decongestants may not be suitable for everyone, and a doctor can recommend alternative treatments or medications. In addition, a doctor can monitor your condition and adjust the dosage and duration of decongestant use if necessary. If you have any questions or concerns about decongestants, talk to your healthcare provider.

Side Effects and Risks

While decongestants can help relieve nasal congestion and other related symptoms, they also carry certain risks and side effects. Some common side effects of decongestants include:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure: Decongestants can cause blood vessels to constrict, which can raise blood pressure and heart rate. This effect is more likely to occur in people with underlying cardiovascular conditions.
  • Difficulty sleeping: Decongestants can stimulate the central nervous system, making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.
  • Irritation and dryness in the nose and throat: Most decongestants cause dryness and irritation in the nasal passages and throat.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Some people may experience gastrointestinal side effects such as nausea and vomiting.
  • Headaches and dizziness: Decongestants can cause headaches and dizziness, particularly if taken in high doses.
  • Rebound congestion: Prolonged use of nasal decongestants can lead to dependence and rebound congestion, where symptoms return and worsen once the medication is stopped.

It is important to talk to a healthcare provider before taking decongestants, particularly if you have underlying health conditions.

Decongestant Alternatives

While decongestants can be effective in relieving nasal congestion, there are also alternative treatments that can help manage symptoms. Some of the most common decongestant alternatives include:

Saline Nasal Sprays and Washes

Saline nasal sprays and washes can help flush out mucus and allergens from the nasal passages, relieving congestion and other related symptoms. They can be used as often as needed and are generally safe and well-tolerated.


Antihistamines are commonly used to treat allergies and can also help relieve nasal congestion. They work by blocking the effects of histamine, a chemical released during an allergic reaction that causes symptoms such as sneezing, itching, and congestion. Antihistamines are available OTC and in prescription-strength formulations.

Nasal Corticosteroids

Nasal corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory medications that can help reduce inflammation and swelling in the nasal passages, relieving congestion and other related symptoms. They are available in prescription-strength formulations and can take several days to become fully effective.

Sublingual Immunotherapy (SLIT)

Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) is a form of immunotherapy that involves placing a tablet or liquid containing small amounts of an allergen under the tongue. Through repeated exposure, over time, the immune system becomes desensitized to the allergen, reducing the severity of allergy symptoms. SLIT is just as effective as allergy shots, but unlike allergy shots, SLIT can be taken from the comfort of home and does not require regular frequent injections.

Take Our Allergy Assessment

If you are suffering from allergies and want to find a long-term solution, Wyndly might be right for you. Our allergy doctors can help you find relief by identifying what you’re allergic to and creating a personalized treatment plan for your allergies. Take our online allergy survey today to see how Wyndly can help you!

Frequently Asked Questions

How Often Can You Take Decongestants?

The frequency of taking decongestants depends on the type of medication you are using and the severity of your symptoms. In general, oral decongestants can be taken every 4-6 hours, while nasal sprays should not be used for more than three days in a row. Always follow the instructions on the label or as directed by your doctor.

Do Decongestants Make You Drowsy?

Oral decongestants, just like other medicines, can sometimes cause drowsiness as a side effect, especially in high doses. However, most topical decongestants do not cause drowsiness. If you experience drowsiness or any other unusual symptoms, talk to your doctor so they can determine the severity of your reaction.

Can Children Take Decongestants?

Some decongestants are safe for children to use, while others are not recommended for children under a certain age as they can have severe side effects. You must talk to your child's pediatrician before giving them any medication. This includes OTC decongestants.

Can You Take Decongestants During Pregnancy?

Some decongestants are considered safe to use during pregnancy, while others are not recommended. It is important to always consult with your doctor before taking any medication, including decongestant medicine if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Check your patient information leaflet for more details.

Is Wyndly right for you?

Answer just a few questions and we'll help you find out.

Get Started Today