‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.’ So sang Joni Mitchell in 1970 (not Counting Crows, regardless of what any millennial will tell you). This same principle applies to your nose. Never have I ever taken a long deep breath through my nose and thought about how wonderful it is to not have a blocked nose. I only pine for clear nasal passages when my nose is more sealed than your average boat. Today, we are going to take a deep dive into the science behind blocked noses, why they happen at all, and crucially, how to get rid of them!
If you ask the average punter on the street why they get blocked noses, most people will scratch their head and speculate that it has something to do with having too much snot clogging up your sinus. It is a wonderful guess, but it is only half right. In reality, your nose becomes blocked when the blood vessels in your nasal cavities become inflamed and the tissue becomes swollen. This explains why blowing your nose or sitting in a steamy shower doesn’t automatically fix your blocked nose.
The causes for this inflammation? Well that is more complex:
- The common cold – This is a viral infection of your throat and nose, and despite the name, it can be uncommonly nasty. In any given year, you might expect to cop this little blighter two or three times, and usually it goes away with over the counter remedies like Ibuprofen or Paracetamol. The virus invades your nose, and part of your body’s immune response is to trigger the symptoms which make the cold such a pain, but without which, you would not be able to recover nearly as well.
- Influenza – A common misconception is that if you’ve got a cold and it is particularly nasty, then it must be the flu. In fact, it is an entirely different virus, and so the severity is in many ways irrelevant. What they do share is that, like the common cold, Influenza has an inflammatory effect on the blood vessels in your nasal cavity. In 2019, over 300,000 people contracted influenza. The Government health report at the time lamented that this had been Australia’s worst year to date; If only they had known what would emerge later that year…
- COVID – A blocked nose is one of the symptoms of COVID, and if you have tested positive, you should seek advice from your GP via telehealth.
- Allergies – This is kinda like a false alarm signal in your immune system. Your body mistakes a harmless substance for a harmful one, and pulls the fire alarm. This produces white blood cells which causes an increase in the chemicals which produce mucus and those that inflame the blood vessels in your nose. The knowledge that this is entirely a false alarm actually makes the whole experience worse.
Knowing why you’ve got a blocked nose is great, but when your body has ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot’, all you really care about is how to get rid of them. Here is a variety of techniques, some medicinal, others home remedies. Combining a number of these is sure to make a dent in the impenetrable hull that is your blocked nose.
- Nasal Sprays & Washes: This is a seriously underrated approach. Nasal sprays & washes are made up of a solution which helps to liquify stubborn mucus which is solidifying in your nose. This reduces the backlog of debris which is exacerbating the inflamed blood vessels. Your body still needs to fight off the virus to truly kick the blocked nose, but nasal sprays & washes clear the battlefield so that your immune system isn’t hampered. If you are experiencing a blocked nose because of an allergic reaction, nasal sprays and washes can flush the antigen from your system, and depending on your specific case, it could clear up the blocked nose entirely.
- Keeping up your liquids – This helps with your circulation. If your body is able to pump blood more readily, it sends white blood cells to the infected area more easily. White blood cells are your foot soldiers, so the more of them you have flooding the infected area, the quicker you will recover.
- Showers – If you’re anything like me, you will jump at the chance to take a long hot shower. The steam flowing in through your nose functions in a similar way to nasal sprays & washes in that they reduce the excess mucus which is clogging you up. Again, it doesn’t necessarily fight the virus, but it clears the path for your body to do so more effectively.
- Keep upright – When you lie in bed, try to keep your torso elevated. This way, you allow the mucus to run down the back of your throat so it doesn’t pool in your nasal cavities making the whole area more congested and inflammed than it is already.
- Anti-inflammatories – While there are plenty of anti-inflammatories that are targeted specifically for cold and flu symptoms, the reality is that any will work. I will often recommend my clients pick up Ibuprofen for one very simple reason: Paracetamol works to numb the pain receptors in your brain, but doesn’t actively target the inflamed area. Ibuprofen on the other hand, reduces the pain by reducing inflammation.
Let’s use the image of the battlefield here, one last time: We want to attack in a pincer movement. Get Ibuprofen to target the root cause of the inflammation, and use nasal sprays & washes or hot showers to reduce the excess mucus. In doing so, we are much more likely to ‘win’ this battle in a timely manner. Before you know it, you will be breathing through both barrels pain free. And hopefully you will appreciate the joy of an unclogged nose. If you will forgive one final terrible pun, ‘You don’t nose what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…”