Causes, Medicines and Home Remedies

A runny nose isn’t just a kid thing, but all these years later you probably remember your mom dashing off with a tissue before dabbing the drip with your sleeve.

Annoying, yes, but keep in mind that your snot (like your mother!) is just trying to help – mucus is your first line of defense when you inhale a germ or irritant, as we all do with each breath. “The entire nasal passage is lined with glands that continuously produce mucus – mucus is needed to keep the membranes moist and protect the body from infection or injury,” explains Andrew Lane, MD., the director of the Johns Hopkins Sinus Center in Baltimore.

When a microorganism, a particle of dust or a tiny piece of arts and crafts glitter tries to enter your body via your schnoz, the sticky mucus (mostly water, proteins and sugars) traps it. Then the little hairs in your nose move it to your throat, you swallow it, and it ends up being digested in your stomach without you even realizing it, says Dr. Lane.

But when the invader is a viral infection (say, cold or flu), or a bacterial infection, or something that causes you to have a allergic reactionyour immune system kicks into high gear, and so does your mucus production. “The membranes in your nose may start to swell and you’ll see more mucus,” explains Tochi Iroku-Malize, MD, MPH, a family physician in Long Island, NY, and president of the American Association of Family Physicians. It might start to get thicker and more slimy as your immune system sends out proteins to try to fight off the invader, she says. “Some of these proteins also give the mucus color.”

We usually think of a runny nose (as opposed to a stuffy nose) as more of the type of watery discharge, which is produced by the glands towards the front of the nose, Dr. Lane explains. But you can have both a runny nose and a stuffy nose, in case you haven’t noticed. “Inflammation due to the common cold and sinusitis can cause thicker drainage from further into the nose and sinuses,” he says.

Why won’t my nose stop running?

“There are two main reasons why people will get a runny nose,” says Dr. Iroku-Malize. “Either they have an infection caused by a virus or bacteria, or they have allergies— these are the two most common reasons.

But your nose can also sometimes start running because you smelled something strong, inhaled smoke, breathe polluted air or if you ate something spicy. “The nasal passages also have many nerve endings that sense the environment and help regulate the amount of mucus produced and the speed of mucus movement,” says Dr. Lane. “For example, if dryness is detected, nerves will stimulate glands to speed up mucus production.”

Mid adult woman blowing nose with handkerchief in park

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This is why the cold air (which is drier than warmer air) can open the valve. “Furthermore, when nerves are irritated by something that has been inhaled, it can cause mucus to be produced and moved more quickly to remove the offending agent, sometimes also causing sneeze reflex to blow it through the nose. (Think, sneeze when you sniff too much pepper.)

How to quickly stop a runny nose?

There are several ways to wipe a runny nose.

Over-the-counter medications:

  • Decongestants, which decrease mucus production. “But with decongestants, we have to be careful,” says Dr. Iroku-Malize. These drugs work by narrowing the blood vessels in your nose, she says, but they also narrow other blood vessels, which can cause your blood pressure to rise. “If you have high blood pressure, you shouldn’t take them,” she says.
  • Nasal steroid sprays. These can help if you have allergies that inflame your nasal passages, causing runny.
  • Antihistamines. This class of drugs prevents the body’s chemical histamine from making you stuffy and sneezing to expel the allergen, says Dr. Iroku-Malize. But be aware that these drugs can make you feel high and sleepy.
  • A combination drug, as an antihistamine plus a decongestant. Some people need both, but try to choose a formulation that specifically targets your problem – if you can get away with either, that’s ideal. “At the end of the day, it’s best to try not to take anything you don’t need,” she says.

Home remedies and natural options:

One of the reasons for extra mucus production (and fluid leaking from your nose) is that your body is working hard to keep the inside of your nose moist. If you take over, “the body doesn’t have to produce as much mucus, because you keep your nose and throat moist,” says Dr. Iroku-Malize. There are plenty of options here.

  • An over-the-counter saline spray. They are designed to lubricate your nasal passages if you are a bit dry.
  • I can neti. Neti pots are specially designed mini teapot-shaped containers that allow you to irrigate your nostrils and flush out nasty stuff with a saline mixture. “These are good as long as it’s done safely,” she says. “Use distilled water or water that has been boiled beforehand, so you don’t introduce anything into the noise.” You can buy prepackaged saline to add to water or ask your doctor how to make your own, she says.
  • A humidifier. This adds moisture to the air you breathe and helps keep your nose and throat moist. Check out the Good Housekeeping Institute’s top picks.
  • A hot shower during which you can breathe the steam. You can also spray your bathroom with a hot shower and just sit in the steam (a safer option for kids).
  • Hot drinks. The steam from tea or soup can moisten the inside of your nostrils, reducing your body’s need to produce mucus. Bonus: you will have Stay hydrated, especially important if you have a virus or other infection. Don’t make a grog out of it, advises Dr. Iroku-Malize, because alcohol is dehydrating.

How long does a runny nose last?

It depends on why your nose is runny. If your nose is runny because the nerves in your nose are stimulated or because you are cold, it should stop as soon as things return to normal.

Colds and other viruses tend to last about seven to 10 days, says Dr. Iroku-Malize, and your runny nose can stay that long until the infection has run its course. The same goes for a bacterial infection, although your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to speed it up.

But if your runny nose is a symptom of allergies, it will continue to run as long as you exposed to allergen. “An allergy causes your immune system to overreact to something harmless, like pet dander or grass,” says Dr. Iroku-Malize. As it does, it releases the chemical histamine, which makes you feel stuffy and runny, your body’s way of trying to “get rid” of the substance.

When to consult a doctor :

Usually, when you have a runny nose, it comes out of both nostrils, says Dr. Lane. “Definitely see a doctor if there’s a large amount of drainage on just one side of the nose,” he says. It’s very rare, he says, but if someone leaks clear, watery fluid on one side only, it could be a cerebrospinal fluid leak and is a 911-worthy emergency. Another rare reason for a runny nose is a nasal tumor.

For the vast majority of us whose runny nose is caused by a virus or bacterial infection, see a doctor if it hasn’t cleared up within a week or 10 days, says Dr. Iroku-Malize. “Another reason to see a doctor is if you got better and all of a sudden your symptoms started getting worse again – you may have had a viral infection, but now you have a bacterial infection. layered,” she says. In this case, you will probably receive antibiotics.

And if your nose continues to run for months or years for no obvious reason, says Dr. Lane, you may have vasomotor rhinitis (non-allergic), which is a chronic runny nose when you don’t have any sort of infection or allergy. For that, he says, you can be prescribed a nasal spray that stops your glands from producing mucus, or have an in-office procedure to treat overactive nerves that cause the glands to push stuff out.

The bottom line:

Most runny noses go away on their own or with over-the-counter medications, but keeping your nasal passages and the air you breathe moist can also prevent the overproduction of mucus.

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Portrait of Stephanie Dolgoff

Deputy director

Stephanie (her) is the Associate Director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she writes, edits and otherwise creates health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and other Hearst titles. She’s covered women’s physical and emotional health, nutrition, sexuality and the myriad topics they contain for national publications for decades, and she’s also a bestselling author, mom of twins, mom of dog and an intuitive eater in progress.

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