Runny noses aren’t just a kid thing, but all those years later you probably remember your mom swooping in with a handkerchief before you blotted the drip with your sleeve.
Annoying, yes, but remember that your snot (like your mom!) is only trying to help — mucus is your first line of defense when you inhale a germ or irritant, as we all do with every breath we take. “The entire nasal passage is lined with glands that continually produce mucus — mucus is necessary to keep the membranes moist and protect the body from infection or injury,” says Andrew Lane, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Sinus Center in Baltimore .
When a microorganism, dust particle, or tiny piece of arts and craft glitter tries to get into your body via your Schnoz, they’re ensnared in gooey mucus (mostly water, proteins, and sugars). Then the little hairs in your nose move it toward your throat, you swallow it, and it ends up digested in your stomach without you even realizing it, explains Dr. Lane.
But if the invader is a viral infection (like the common cold or flu), or a bacterial infection, or something that’s giving you an allergic reaction, your immune system kicks in and your mucus production kicks in too. “The membranes in your nose can swell and you’ll see more mucus,” says Tochi Iroku-Malize, MD, MPH, a Long Island, NY, general practitioner and president of the American Association of Family Physicians. It might start getting thicker and stickier because your immune system is sending out proteins to try and fight off the invader, she says. “Some of these proteins also give the mucus color.”
We usually think of a runny nose (as opposed to a stuffy nose) as a watery discharge produced by glands in the front of the nose, says Dr. Lane. But you can have both a runny nose and a stuffy nose, in case you haven’t noticed. “Inflammation from colds and sinusitis can cause thicker drainage to be produced from further back in the nose and sinuses,” he says.
Why won’t my nose stop running?
“There are two main reasons people get a runny nose,” says Dr. Iroku Malize. “Either they have an infection caused by viruses or bacteria, or they have allergies — those are the two most common reasons.”
But sometimes your nose also runs because you smelled something strong, inhaled smoke, inhaled polluted air or ate something spicy. “The nasal passages also have abundant nerve endings that sense the environment and help regulate the amount of mucus production and the speed of mucus movement,” says Dr. Lane. “For example, when dryness is sensed, the nerves stimulate the glands to increase mucus production.”
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Therefore, cold air (which is drier than warmer air) can turn on the faucet. “Also, if the nerves are irritated by something inhaled, this can result in faster mucus production and movement to wash away the offending agent, sometimes also eliciting a sneeze reflex to blow it out of the nose.” (Think sneezing, if you sniff too much pepper.)
How to stop a runny nose fast?
There are a few ways you can dry a runny nose.
- decongestantsthat reduce mucus production. “But we have to be careful with decongestants,” says Dr. Iroku Malize. These drugs work by constricting the blood vessels in your nose, she says, but they also constrict other blood vessels, which can cause blood pressure to rise. “If you have high blood pressure, you shouldn’t be taking them,” she says.
- Nasal sprays with steroids. These can help if you have allergies that are inflaming your nasal passages and causing you to run.
- antihistamines. This class of drugs prevents the body’s chemical histamine from making you stuffy and sneezing to get rid of the allergen, explains Dr. Iroku Malize. But do know that these drugs can make you drowsy and drowsy.
- a combination drug, like an antihistamine plus a decongestant. Some people need both, but try to pick a wording that specifically addresses your problem – if you can get away with one or the other, that’s ideal. “At the end of the day, it’s best not to take anything with you that you don’t need,” she says.
Home remedies and natural alternatives:
One of the reasons for the extra mucus production (and nasal leakage) is that your body is working hard to keep the inside of your nose moist. When you close the gap, “the body doesn’t have to produce as much mucus because you’re keeping your nose and throat moist,” says Dr. Iroku Malize. There are many options here.
- An over-the-counter saline spray. They are designed to lubricate your nasal passages when you are a bit dry.
- I can not. Neti pots are small, purpose-built teapot-like vessels that you use to flush your nostrils and flush out nasties with a mixture of table salt. “That’s fine as long as it’s done safely,” she says. “Use distilled water or water that’s been boiled beforehand so you don’t introduce anything into the noise.” You can buy prepackaged saline to add to the water or ask your doctor how to make your own, she says.
- A humidifier. This adds moisture to the air you breathe and helps keep your nose and throat moist. Check out the top picks from the Good Housekeeping Institute.
- A hot shower you can breathe in the steam. You can also spice up your bathroom with a hot shower and just sit in the steam (a safer option for kids).
- Steaming drinks. The steam from the tea or soup can wet the insides of your nostrils, reducing the need for your body to expel mucus. Bonus: you stay hydrated, especially important if you have a virus or other infection. Just don’t make it a hot toddy, advises Dr. Iroku-Malize, as alcohol is dehydrating.
How long does a runny nose last?
That depends on why your nose is running. If your nose is dripping because the nerves in your nose are being stimulated or because you’re coming from the cold, it should stop once things return to normal.
Colds and other viruses typically last about seven to 10 days, says Dr. Iroku-Malize, and your runny nose can linger all the time until the infection has run its course. The same goes for a bacterial infection, although your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to speed it up.
But if your runny nose is a symptom of allergies, it will run for as long as you are exposed to the allergen. “An allergy causes your immune system to overreact to something harmless like pet dander or grass,” says Dr. Iroku Malize. This releases the chemical histamine, causing you to become stuffy and runny, which your body tries to “get rid” of the substance.
When to the doctor:
When you have a runny nose, it usually comes from both nostrils, says Dr. Lane. “Be sure to see a doctor if there’s a lot of fluid leaking from just one side of your nose,” he says. It’s very unusual, he says, but if someone drips watery, clear fluid from just one side, it can be a CSF leak and be a 911-worthy emergency. Another rare reason for a runny nose is a nasal tumor.
For the vast majority of us whose runny nose is caused by a virus or bacterial infection, see a doctor if it hasn’t gone away in a week or 10 days, says Dr. Iroku Malize. “Another reason to see the doctor is if your symptoms have improved and suddenly your symptoms get worse — it may be that you used to have a viral infection but now have a superimposed bacterial infection,” she says. In this case, you will probably receive antibiotics.
And if your nose runs for months or years for no apparent reason, you may have vasomotor (non-allergic) rhinitis, which is chronic runny nose if you don’t have an infection or allergy, says Dr. Lane. For that, he says, you can be prescribed a nasal spray, which stops your glands from making mucus, or have an in-office procedure to treat the overactive nerves that cause the glands to crank the stuff out.
The bottom line:
Most runny noses go away on their own or with over-the-counter medication, but keeping your nasal passages and the air you breathe moist can also prevent excess mucus production.
Stephanie (she/she) is the Associate Director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she writes, edits, and otherwise creates health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention, and other Hearst titles. She’s covered women’s physical and emotional health, nutrition, sexuality and the myriad of topics she covers for national publications for decades, and she’s also a best-selling author, mother of twins, dog mom and an intuitive eater along the way.