What's Your Nose IQ?

Stephanie S. grew up with the dubious nickname “stuffy Stephie” thanks to the frequent bouts with nasal stuffiness she’s had since childhood. “It disturbs my natural breath. My nasal passageways feel swollen and clogged. It’s very annoying,” she says. 

Nasal and sinus issues are frequently confused, says Stephen P. Gadomski, MS, MD, FACS, Virtua’s chief of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery. “You don’t breathe through your sinuses, you breathe through your nose,” he explains.

“The nose is an air conditioner. By the time you breathe through it, the air that reaches your lungs has been filtered, humidified and warmed up.” Your sinuses are the hollow bony cavities along the side of your nose.

Nasal symptoms and congestion caused by colds, allergies, or breathing irritants such as dust or chemicals can mimic sinus symptoms. “If you have a cold for more than five to seven days and it’s getting worse rather than better, then you may be developing a bacterial sinus infection,” says Dr. Gadomski.

Unless you have a deviated septum, you can relieve many, if not all, of your symptoms with neti pot and nasal saline rinses—which shrink the congestion of the nasal membranes. Seemingly a tiny member of the tea pot family, the neti pot is a small ceramic spouted dish that lets you pour a warm saline rinse into your nasal passages. It sounds like a slow method of self-drowning, but Dr. Gadomski urges anyone unfamiliar with using a neti pot to watch a tutorial video first before using it. For Gina R., who knows chronic stuffiness all too well, a daily regimen of neti pot rinses, nasal spray and mucus thinners have helped. “Anything and everything irritates my nose and makes it stuffy, such as chemicals at work, cleaning products, flowers, trees and dust,” she says.

Both “stuffy” Stephanie and Gina have taken their home treatments further, giving up foods such as dairy and wheat. When these measures don’t work, says Dr. Gadomski, nasal steroid or antihistamine sprays, oral medications, or even desensitization (use of allergy shots or drops under the tongue) may be the next step. The best policy is to first steer clear of your triggers.

“Avoid what you are allergic to,” he says. “Consider allergy testing for foods as well as airborne allergens and then adjust your environment.”

Updated January 14, 2022

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