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How Does Afrin Nasal Spray Work?

author image Charlie Osborne
A speech-language pathologist, Charlie Osborne has published articles related to his field. He was an associate editor and then editor for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Division 4 Perspectives in Fluency and Fluency Disorders. Osborne has a Master of Arts degree in communicative disorders from the University of Central Florida.
How Does Afrin Nasal Spray Work?
Woman using a nasal spray. Photo Credit ljubaphoto/iStock/Getty Images

Afrin is an over-the-counter medication used to relieve nasal congestion caused by conditions such as hay fever, sinus ailments and allergies, reports the National Institutes of Health's MedlinePlus website. If you're currently using or planning on treating your nasal congestion with Afrin, it is essential to understand how the medicine works, by examining the nature of the medication itself and its mechanism of action within the nasal passages.


Afrin contains the active ingredient oxymetazoline, a direct-acting sympathomimetic amine, according to the Pharmacogenomics Knowledge Base. When sprayed into the nose in a mist, this chemical acts as a vascular constrictor--meaning that it constricts, or narrows, the blood vessels within the nose in order, reducing blood flow within the nasal membranes as a result.


Bottles of Afrin come equipped with a small pump-nozzle that is designed to be inserted into each nostril to introduce a solution containing oxymetazoline into the nasal passages. Rapidly absorbed through the membranes within the nose, oxymetazoline produces an almost immediate relief from congestion as it constricts the blood vessels within nasal membranes, opening up the nasal passages and allowing for easier breathing.

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Time Frame

Afrin's decongestant effects generally last 10 to 12 hours, reports MedlinePlus. It is indicated for use once to twice a day as needed to clear up nasal congestion, and should not be used for more than three days in a row because of the possibility of physical tolerance. Using oxymetazoline spray for longer than indicated can actually result in exacerbated symptoms,"rebound" congestion due to the body's reliance on oxymetazoline to open up the nasal passages.


According to Afrin's product website, there are five varieties of the medication available: Original, Severe Congestion, Sinus, Extra Moisturizing and All Night. It is vital to note that each of these formulations contain the same active ingredient, oxymetazoline, and all share the same mechanism of action, despite their different product labels.


Oxymetazoline works rapidly and efficiently to diminish nasal congestion, making Afrin a solid option for severe congestion. However, because of the medication's potential to actually increase congestion if used for more than several days, you may want to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about different options for nasal decongestants, such as pill formulations including phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Another option to consider is a saline nasal spray, which--although it is not a vascular constrictor that provides immediate relief--can be used as often as needed to relieve some symptoms of sinus- or allergy-related nasal congestion. Talk to your doctor about any chronic nasal congestion before using Afrin to determine if there is a cause--rather than symptom--that can be treated without the need for oxymetazoline.

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