Can't Breathe Through Nose: Why and What to Do

Few things are as frustrating as nasal congestion. When you can't breathe through nose, it is because the sinus blood vessels and tissues have become swollen with fluid, making it difficult to breathe. This congestion may also trigger discharge, typically referred to as a "runny nose", as well as discharge into the back of the throat, called post-nasal drip. Adults and children alike can find this minor health problem agitating, especially when it hinders their ability to get proper sleep. If you have small children, this condition can make feeding, breathing, and sleeping particularly difficult.

Why Can't I Breathe Through Nose?

Most patients look for solid answers to why they can't breathe through nose. There are over two dozen conditions which can lead to this problem. The most common are as follows:

1. Normal Buildup of Mucus

Mucus is produced naturally each day. It flows down the back of the throat and is swallowed. Typically, this goes unnoticed. However, during sleep it can flow less which leads to a backup in the nose and leads to restricted breathing.

2. Common Cold

Every person is aware of the common cold which is caused by a virus that infects the respiratory tract. Your nose and throat are part of this system. Individuals with the common cold are likely to have swelling of the nasal passages which is why they can't breathe through nose.

3. Dry Air

In order for mucus to flow, the nasal passages and throat need to be lubricated accordingly. Dry air can cause it to thicken and block the nasal passages. Adding a humidifier to the room can help this situation.

4. Acute Sinusitis

Acute sinusitis occurs when sinus cavities become inflamed around the nasal passages. This leads to mucus buildup which causes further congestion. Pressure around eyes and cheekbones is typically a sign of this condition. It may be the result of allergies or colds.

5. Allergies

Allergies are your body's response to unknown substances that enter it. They can very extensively from one person to the next. Common allergies include seasonal reaction to pollen and allergies to pet dander. Congestion occurs when your immune system causes the nasal passages to inflame in an attempt to push out the irritant.

6. Chronic Sinusitis

Patients who have repeated bouts of acute sinusitis with no clear cause are diagnosed with chronic sinusitis. This condition can last for weeks even with proper treatment. It is common for patients to feel throbbing pain throughout the cheeks, temple, and forehead region during a flare up.

7. Churg-Strauss Syndrome

This medical condition is rare and difficult to diagnose. It is caused by inflammation of the blood vessels not only in the sinus area, but in other parts of the body. It is concerning because it can restrict blood flow to vital organs which may lead to permanent damage.

8. Influenza

The flu is another type of viral infection that is focused on the respiratory system. As such, it can cause swelling and mucus buildup in the throat, nose, and lungs. This is why you can't breathe through nose. Typically this condition is treated with anti-viral medication, but can also be left to phase out on its own.

9. Deviated Septum

The nasal septum is a thin wall of tissue that separates each nostril. Deviated septum refers to when this tissue is displaced to one side, restricting the flow of oxygen there and causing the feeling of congestion. The obstruction is also likely to result in swelling of nasal tissue which also leads to congestion.

10. Drug Addition

One of the side effects of using narcotics that are inhaled through the nose is that they can heavily damage the tissue. When nasal tissue is damaged, it becomes enflamed and causes difficulties breathing. Additionally, some people may discover that drinking alcohol or smoking causes congestion due to the fact that the body responds negatively to the substances. Although legal, both are also classified as drugs.

11. Nasal Polyps

Nasal polyps are caused by small growths in the lining of the nasal passage. These soft balls of tissue fill the sinus cavity as a response to allergies, infection, or immune disorders. Nasal polyps make it difficult to breathe because they cause a blockage in the sinus cavity. These typically shrink on their own, but in some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the growths.

12. Non-Allergic Rhinitis

Individuals who have consistent allergy-like symptoms, but no known allergies, are experiencing non-allergic rhinitis. It is where the body responds to an irritant like the weather, medications, or food by inflaming the nasal passages.

What to Do If I Can't Breathe Through Nose

In many cases, temporary relief of nasal congestion can be achieved through one of the following methods.

1. Use a Humidifier

Humidifiers moisten the air you are breathing, which helps sooth nasal passages and thin mucus that may be causing congestion.

2. Take a Hot Shower

A hot steamy shower will provide similar type of relief to a humidifier. The steam calms swollen nasal passages, reducing inflammation and restoring the ability to breathe.

3. Stay Hydrated

When sick, the body needs extra fluids. Hot tea or chicken soup may help thin mucus in nose and throat. In general, drinking any type of water or sports drink with electrolytes is most beneficial to increase hydration and trigger the release of fluids built up in the sinus cavities.

4. Try a Neti Pot

The neti pot is used to gently clear out irritants from the nasal passage. It uses a combination of salt and distilled water to rinse the cavities. Removing the irritants will decrease the inflammation and restore natural breathing.

5. Apply Warm Compress

Using a heating pad on low or warmed compress across the forehead or eyes/nasal region aids in warming mucus that is causing congestion. Once warmed, it thins and flows naturally from the area.

6. Take Allergy Medicine

Any congestion caused by allergies may be cured by antihistamine (Benedryl) or allergy (claritan, allegra) medications.

7. Use OTC Decongestants

A last resort option can be to use nasal decongestant sprays like Afrin. These are only recommended for 1 to 3 days. They can provide immediate relief but are also highly addictive and can damage the nasal passages with prolonged use. Alternatively, sinus congestion medications can be taken to provide temporary relief.

When to See a Doctor

In most situations, nasal congestion is a short-lived annoyance that will naturally resolve itself within 3-5 days. If symptoms progress longer than 10 days, consult a physician. You should also see a doctor if you can't breathe through nose and have yellow/green discharge, sinus pain, persistent fever, and blood in nasal discharge.

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