Fewer things are more uncomfortable than feeling congested. Nasal congestion occurs when tissues and blood vessels in your nose become engorged with fluid. Chest congestion is caused by excessive mucus production in the airways. But whether your nose is stuffed, your chest is heavy, or both, you need relief—and fast.

There are ways to ease the pressure, says Vincent Tubiolo, MD, an allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist in Santa Barbara, who adds that although congestion-easing methods don't have much medical science to back them up, they're worth trying.

What Works

1. Steam. Whether you use a humidifier, take a hot shower, or simply sit with your covered head over a bowl of hot water, inhaling steam can ease congestion. "I think it does help to lubricate the nasal passages, which helps keep the mucus thinner," says Tubiolo. Thinning the mucus can make it easier to expel.

2. Hydration. It's important to drink plenty of fluids when you're congested. As with inhaling steam, drinking fluids can help thin out any mucus your body is producing, making it easier to get rid of. Also, a runny nose can cause you to lose valuable fluid.

3. Saline nasal drops and sprays. These contain a precisely calibrated ratio of salt, water, and other substances that are designed to wash mucus from the nose and help the cilia (tiny hairs inside your nose) push out infected material. It's preferable to buy over-the-counter saline products as opposed to making your own homemade salt-water solutions may be too irritating.

4. Over-the-counter decongestants. They won't knock out your cold, but they can make it more bearable in the short term. Remember that these should not be taken for more than a few days, and they can have side effects such as extreme fatigue.

5. Allergy medication. If you normally suffer from allergies, it's important not to stop taking your allergy medication should you become extra congested due to a cold or virus. "Those medications are already helping to control inflammation and swelling," Tubiolo explains. "If you stop them, you could end up with more problems."

What Won't Work

Antibiotics. If you automatically ask for antibiotics at the first sign of a runny nose or cough, you're not doing yourself any favors. Colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria, so antibiotics will be useless and maybe even harmful to your health. "If you take antibiotics when you don't need them, you run the risk of breeding resistant bacteria that will not respond the next time," Tubiolo cautions. Before you ask for a prescription, have your doctor make sure that you have a true bacterial infection and are not suffering from either a cold or an allergy.

Vincent Tubiolo, MD, reviewed this article.


Vincent Tubiolo, MD, phone call with doctor, December 11, 2013. http://www.vincenttubiolomd.com/