Stuffy nose and headache: Causes, treatment, and prevention
A stuffy nose and headache can be the result of benign conditions such as colds and allergies. However, sometimes, they are due to a condition that may require medical attention.
In this article, we discuss some causes of a headache and stuffy nose, as well as the treatment options available. We also look at when a person should seek medical help.
Sinusitis is an infection of the sinuses that can cause a buildup of mucus and swelling. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), an acute sinus infection often starts as a cold.
The initial cold may cause the sinuses to swell, which traps bacteria and mucus in the passages.
According to the AAAAI, chronic sinusitis occurs when a person experiences three or more sinus infections in a given year.
It typically causes sinus swelling and mucus buildup.
Symptoms of sinusitis include:
- pressure around eyes, forehead or nose
- head congestion
- stuffy nose
- discolored and thick mucus
- foul-tasting post-nasal drip
- a feeling of fullness in the ear
- headache, especially in the front of the head
- fever, although this is less common
Viruses cause most sinus infections, and people can treat most sinus problems with over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
However, if the sinus problems persist or worsen after 7–10 days, sinusitis is likely due to bacteria. In these cases, a doctor might prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics kill the bacteria that causes the infection to occur.
2. A cold
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a stuffy nose is a common cold symptom. Some people may also experience a headache from a cold, although this is a rare symptom.
Other symptoms of a cold can include:
- cough or slight chest pain
- some aches
- sore throat
- fever, although this is rare
- weakness or fatigue
To treat a cold, a person typically needs rest and to consume fluids. A person can also take OTC medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Home remedies, such as humidifiers or steamy showers, may also help combat symptoms.
If symptoms do not go away within 10–14 days, a person should talk to their doctor as they may have a sinus infection.
Learn more about how to treat a cold here.
Influenza, or the flu, is a respiratory illness that occurs due to influenza viruses.
Those experiencing the flu may also experience stuffy noses and headaches.
According to the CDC, other symptoms include:
- sore throat
- muscle aches
- fever, although this does not always occur
Some people may experience vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more likely to occur in children than in adults.
Some people with flu may develop serious complications. A person should seek emergency medical help if they experience any of the following:
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
- persistent confusion or dizziness
- severe muscle pain
- severe weakness
It is a good idea to receive treatment as early as possible. A doctor may also prescribe antiviral drugs to help prevent complications from occurring.
Allergies can cause a stuffy nose and a headache. When allergies cause a headache, a person may experience other symptoms, such as:
- watery, itchy eyes
- runny nose
- pain in the face around the cheeks and nose
A person should avoid allergy triggers where possible.
Treatments consist of OTC medications, such as antihistamines and nasal decongestants.
If OTC medications are not effective, a person should talk to their doctor about prescription medications or allergy shots.
5. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is an infection of the nose, lungs, and throat. Though anyone can get it, it is more common in children. It is a cause of bronchiolitis in children.
The virus can cause a dull or mild headache and a stuffy nose.
In some cases, RSV may cause other symptoms such as:
- a cough
- shortness of breath
- sore throat
Most healthy adults and children can treat RSV at home, and it goes away after 1–2 weeks.
In these cases, OTC cold medications will help ease symptoms. However, a person should talk to a doctor before giving medicines to children.
The CDC state that older adults, infants, and people living with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of developing serious symptoms and should seek medical attention if they experience trouble breathing.
6. Ear infections
Ear infections can cause a headache and a stuffy nose. Both viruses and bacteria can cause an ear infection.
Fluid from the ear can leak into the nasal passages and cause an infection in the nose.
Some common symptoms of an ear infection include:
- hearing loss
- fluid drainage
- difficulty sleeping
- issues with balance
Some home remedies can provide relief from an ear infection. Some steps a person can take include:
- OTC decongestants
- using a warm compress
- extra fluids
- taking OTC pain medications
- using OTC ear drops
If home treatments do not work, a person should talk to their doctor.
A doctor may need to prescribe an antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection.
A person should seek medical help if these symptoms occur:
- a high fever of 102°F or higher
- worsening symptoms
- hearing loss
- pus, fluid, or discharge coming from the ear
Migraines are severe, throbbing headaches that typically affect one side of the head or the other. Migraines can cause a person to experience a stuffy nose.
They can be chronic, meaning that they can reoccur.
Other symptoms can include:
- light sensitivity
- vision changes
Learn more about the different types of headaches here.
There are several different treatment options for migraines, though they might not work for everyone.
Treatment typically focuses on either preventing the attack or treating the symptoms.
A person should talk to their doctor about the best treatment options for them.
Learn more about how to treat migraines here.
8. Nasal polyps
Nasal polyps are benign growths in the nasal passages. Some nasal polyps may not cause any symptoms at all.
Others can cause:
- nasal drainage
- facial pressure
- nasal congestion
- a decrease in the sense of smell
Doctors typically treat nasal polyps with steroids and saline washes. According to the AAAAI, steroids typically reduce the size of the polyps. However, polyps often return, and some people may require long-term steroids or, occasionally, surgery.
Pregnancy can cause headaches and a stuffy nose.
A variety of factors, including changing hormones, during pregnancy can cause a woman to experience headaches and a stuffy nose.
According to a 2012 article, rhinitis is common during pregnancy.
Other symptoms of rhinitis may include sneezing and a runny nose.
A woman who is pregnant should talk to their doctor about any of the symptoms they are experiencing.
A doctor may be able to recommend safe medications or therapies to help treat the headaches.
A woman can also try:
- pregnancy yoga
- practicing good posture
- neck and shoulder massage
- getting more rest
- eating well
- using a cold pack to ease a tension headache
- using a warm facecloth over the eyes and nose if the cause is a sinus headache
In some cases, a person may know what is causing their headache and stuffy nose and may not require a diagnosis each time.
However, a person may want to see a doctor if they do not know the cause of their headache and stuffy nose or their symptoms worsen. A doctor will likely ask a person several questions about symptoms. They will also perform a physical examination.
In some cases, such as allergic reactions, a doctor may order tests to look for allergies or other clues to the underlying condition.
Depending on the cause, people may not always be able to prevent a stuffy nose and a headache.
A person can take steps to wash their hands frequently to avoid exposure to the viruses, including flu, a cold, or RSV.
A person can also take steps to avoid known triggers for their allergies or migraines.
Learn about the proper way to wash hands here.
When to see a doctor
A person who experiences regular colds, allergies, or migraines does not necessarily need to see their doctor each time they occur.
If symptoms get worse or change, they should speak to their doctor.
A person should talk to their doctor if they have any unexplained congestion and headaches.
Their doctor may be able to diagnose an underlying condition that needs treatment.
A stuffy nose and headache are often the result of a mild condition such as a cold or allergies.
Some people may develop more serious conditions such as a bacterial sinus infection, migraines, or an ear infection.
People should talk to their doctor if they have a cold that lasts for longer than a week or other serious symptoms that could indicate a bigger problem.
Treatment often can happen at home with OTC pain medications and decongestants.
Prevention should include proper hand-washing and avoiding triggers for allergies or migraines.
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