Being stuffed up sucks. Ever wonder why it seems like one nostril feels way more clogged than the other? It’s not just your imagination: There’s a scientific reason behind it.
Credit a physiological response called the nasal cycle, a process where your nostrils take turns sucking in more air, says Rachel Roditi, M.D., a surgeon in the division of otolaryngology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Here’s why your nostrils play tag team–and what you can do when one side’s all jammed up.
Why One Nostril Gets More Congested
Structures in both sides of your nose called inferior turbinates are responsible for warming and humidifying air before it reaches your lungs, says Dr. Roditi. This protects your lungs by reducing dryness and irritation.
That process is a lot of work. So your nose funnels its resources more to one side than the other to make the process more efficient.
It sends more blood flow to one nostril, which warms the air coming in through there, but also causes the turbinate on that side to swell. That swelling means there’s less room for air to make its way in. It’s pretty subtle, though–unless you have a cold, infection, allergies, or a structural problem like a deviated septum, you probably won’t notice it going on.
But when you are sick, blood flow to your nose increases even more, sparking more swelling and greater mucus production in your nasal region, says Dr. Roditi.
Even though you’re congested throughout your entire nose, you feel it more strongly in the one nostril where the turbinate is already swollen as part of the normal nasal cycle.
How to Treat Your Congestion
There’s really nothing you can do to shut off the nasal cycle, says Dr. Roditi. It’s likely that one nostril will always feel more stuffed up than the other when you’re sick. Still, after about 90 minutes to 4 hours, your nose switches sides. When that occurs, you’ll probably feel some relief when the swelling in the one nostril goes down–but then the other side will start to feel clogged instead.
Your best bet is to work on easing the congestion overall. Steam from a hot shower or humidifier can help open the floodgates, says Dr. Roditi.
Drinking hot liquids can increase the rate at which the little hairs in your nose sweep mucus out of it. Some experts think that’s the mechanism by which chicken soup could help your congestion clear up.
Saline nasal sprays can help flush out mucus, too. “Saline sprays are a great solution,” explains Lakiea Wright, M.D., an allergist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “You’re essentially helping your body wash out allergens or viruses,” she says. “Two other popular ways to do that are with a neti pot, or with a squeeze bottle kit from the drugstore,” she explains. Both are ways to rinse the nasal passages with saline and distilled water. Most people use the neti pot with their heads tilted over the sink, “and some people like to use the squeeze bottle in the shower,” Dr. Wright says. “Either way, they’re very effective.”
What about classic nose drops (ones containing oxymetazoline)? Only use them as a last resort. “These sprays can cause rebound congestion,” says Jonathan A. Bernstein, M.D., an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Asthma. They clear congestion for a while, but when the effect wears off, stuffiness rebounds right away, so you need another dose in a never-ending cycle. It’s like your nose becomes addicted to them, and relies on them to open up. If you must use these sprays, stick to two puffs a day for no more than five to seven days, he says.
If your stuffed-up symptoms persist beyond 10 to 14 days, or you notice nasal congestion at times other than when you’re sick, check in with your doctor to make sure that something bigger–like a deviated septum–isn’t at play, says Dr. Roditi.
Also consider that you might not have a cold at all; it might be seasonal allergies. Here’s how to know the difference between colds and allergies. To clear congestion in the case of allergies, you’d want to find the root of the problem–work with a doctor to find out exactly what is making you sneeze. Then you can strategize on how to avoid the allergen and also see if you need something like an antihistamine or a nasal steroid spray.