Drip, drip, drip. That's the annoying sound of your leaky faucet, also known as your constant runny nose.
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It's not only inconvenient, but a consistent flow of mucus may also indicate an irritation or inflammation (known as rhinitis) of the nasal tissues.
Because a whole host of health-related issues can irritate or inflame your mucous membranes, we spoke with Cecelia Damask, DO, a board-certified otolaryngologist, to discuss the most common causes and help you get to the root of your runny nose.
Fun fact: Often the same conditions that cause a runny nose also create nasal congestion. That means you may (or may not) have a leaky and stuffy nose at the same time.
1. A Nasal and Sinus Infection
Thick, yellow or greenish mucus draining from your nose normally indicates a nasal and sinus infection (also called acute sinusitis).
When you have a viral infection, your sinuses (the spaces inside your nose) may become inflamed and swollen, which gets in the way of normal nasal drainage and causes a buildup of mucus, per the Mayo Clinic.
In addition to a runny nose, you might also experience nasal congestion, throbbing facial pain or a headache.
Fix it: As long as a bacterial infection doesn’t develop, most cases of acute sinusitis resolve on their own within a week to 10 days, per the Mayo Clinic.
To ease symptoms, you can use home remedies for a sinus infection, such as saline nasal sprays, decongestants and over-the-counter pain relievers.
If your symptoms stick around for more than 10 days, though, you should see your doctor, who might need to prescribe antibiotics.
A constant runny nose (with clear, watery mucus) accompanied by sneezing and itchy eyes usually signals the presence of pesky allergies.
In this case, your sinuses react and produce a waterfall.
"Allergic rhinitis symptoms may be seasonal — symptoms in the spring may be due to tree pollen, in the summer due to grass and in the fall due to weeds and molds," Dr. Damask says. But some people may have perennial (year-round) allergies due to things like dust mites and pet dander, she adds.
Fix it: “Patients can undergo skin or blood testing to evaluate the exact allergen triggering their symptoms,” Dr. Damask says. Once you've identified the culprits, you can try natural remedies for allergies, most of which include avoiding or limiting your exposure to allergens (like staying inside when pollen counts are high, for example).
You can also manage symptoms with allergy medicines like nasal steroid sprays and antihistamines, or you might want to commit to long-term immunotherapies like allergy shots, she says.
3. A Cold
When your nose is overflowing with fluid for a week or so, a common cold could be the culprit.
A viral infection of your nose can cause "blood vessels and mucous membranes in the nose to swell, resulting in a runny and a stuffy nose," Dr. Damask says.
While your mucus may look clear at first, in a few days, the nasal drainage typically starts to become thicker and green or yellow in color as the cold runs its course, Dr. Damask says.
In addition to a runny or stuffy nose, other classic cold symptoms include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Sore throat
- Body aches
- Low-grade fever
Fix it: Normally your run-of-the-mill runny nose and cold will resolve on their own. Again, you can turn to over-the-counter pain relievers as well as saline nasal sprays and decongestants to relieve your symptoms.
But if your symptoms don't improve or get worse after a week or so, see your doctor.
4. A Deviated Septum
A deviated septum might be the source of your distracting drippy nose.
This happens when your nasal septum — the thin wall that separates your nasal passages — is displaced to one side, which can cause swelling of the tissues that line the nose, per the Mayo Clinic.
"If a septum is significantly deviated, it can interfere with normal nasal function," Dr. Damask says.
Other symptoms may include:
- Frequent nosebleeds
- Difficulty breathing
Fix it: Treatments may include medications to lessen the swelling (such as nasal steroid sprays and decongestants) and, in severe cases, corrective surgery.
5. Certain Medications
Believe it or not, your medication might be the reason for your runny nose.
Fix it: If you suspect your medication is meddling with your nasal function, don’t just stop taking it. Instead, speak with your doctor about your options for switching to a different medication with fewer side effects.
6. Occupational Rhinitis
If you notice that your nose only runs while at work, you might have something called occupational rhinitis. These nasal symptoms are due to exposure to allergens or irritants in the workplace, Dr. Damask says.
Another telltale sign of the condition: Your symptoms (which can also include nasal congestion, itching and/or sneezing) worsen during the workweek and improve during weekends and holidays, Dr. Damask says.
Fix it: The best strategy is eliminating (or at least reducing) exposure to the allergen or irritant, per a December 2014 paper in Current Treatment Options in Allergy. For instance, if strong odors or fumes are irritating your nose, wearing a mask at work may help.
In the case of actual allergens, you can also counteract the symptoms of occupational rhinitis by taking medication like antihistamines.
7. Nasal Polyps
When you have chronic drainage from your nose, it's possible you have nasal polyps (noncancerous growths on the lining of your nasal passages or sinuses).
Nasal polyps are linked to inflammation in your nasal passages and sinuses that lasts more than 12 weeks, Dr. Damask says. Other signs of polyps include:
- Nasal congestion
- Facial pain or pressure
- A decreased sense of smell
For a definitive diagnosis, you must be examined by an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose and throat specialist) who may perform either a nasal endoscopy or CT scan, Dr. Damask says.
Fix it: Depending on the severity, nasal polyps can be treated with nasal spray or oral steroids, saline irrigation or monoclonal antibodies (that target the inflammation), Damask says.
Sometimes, “patients need surgery to remove inflamed tissue,” she adds.
8. Gustatory Rhinitis
The scenario: Your nose is dry as a desert until you begin to eat. If your runny nose starts shortly after you dine, you're likely looking at gustatory rhinitis.
This type of runny nose represents a nasal response to eating certain foods (especially spicy fare) or drinking certain liquids like alcohol, per the Mayo Clinic. Boozy beverages may also make the membranes inside your nose swell, causing nasal congestion as well.
Fix it: It’s simple: If you can identify which foods worsen your watery nose, try to avoid them.
9. Senile Rhinitis
A constant runny nose could be a side effect of aging. It might sound strange, but senile rhinitis is a thing, and it can happen as you get older. The condition is made worse by certain triggers, including specific foods, odors or environmental irritants, according to an August 2018 paper in American Family Physician.
What's more, many older people have chronic diseases and take multiple medicines, which, as we know, can contribute to a runny nose.
Fix it: Again, avoiding your triggers can help reduce a runny nose. And if you take medications, discuss the side effects with your doctor.
10. Hormonal Rhinitis
Your excessive mucus may also be a byproduct of hormonal changes, Dr. Damask says. The most common example is pregnancy.
Other hormone shifts related to menstruation, oral contraceptive use or conditions like hypothyroidism can also cause hormonal rhinitis, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Fix it: Luckily, many hormonal changes — like those that happen during pregnancy or menstruation — are only temporary, so your runny nose will resolve naturally.
For other hormonal conditions that may be causing your chronic runny nose, see your doctor.
11. Cold Air-Induced Rhinitis
Does your nose drip when the temperature drops? Some people get watery drainage (as well as nasal congestion and burning) when exposed to cold air, Dr. Damask says.
A type of nonallergic rhinitis (meaning, there's no actual textbook allergic reaction), this condition is triggered by temperature, humidity or barometric changes that can cause the membranes inside your nose to swell, resulting in a runny or stuffy nose, per the Mayo Clinic.
Fix it: While outdoors, you can try sporting a face mask or gaiter to protect your schnoz from chilly temps. Fortunately, these symptoms are usually fleeting. Once you get shelter from the cold air, your symptoms should settle down, Dr. Damask says.
12. Exercise-Induced Rhinitis
If your nose normally waters during workouts, you might be experiencing exercise-induced rhinitis, a condition that's estimated to affect between 27 and 74 percent of athletes, per a September 2019 European Medical Journal review.
While the root cause of this condition is still unclear, the authors emphasize that athletes who often train outdoors are frequently exposed to allergens, cold air and pollutants, which, as we know, can all affect nasal function.
Fix it: Identifying the nasal nuisance is the first step. Keep a daily log and jot down when you have symptoms. This diary can offer useful information for your allergist, who may recommend testing.
Once you’ve pinpointed the problem, limiting exposure to allergens and irritants is ideal. For instance, opt to exercise indoors when it’s cold or the pollen count is high. Additionally, you might use medicines like nasal sprays and antihistamines to manage symptoms.
Is This an Emergency?
- Mayo Clinic: “Allergies”
- Current Treatment Options in Allergy: “Occupational Allergic Rhinitis: What Do We Know?”
- Mayo Clinic: “Acute Sinusitis”
- Mayo Clinic: “Deviated Septum”
- Mayo Clinic: “Nonallergic Rhinitis”
- American Family Physician: “Chronic Nonallergic Rhinitis”
- Mayo Clinic: “Common Cold”
- European Medical Journal: "Exercise and Rhinitis in Athletes"
- Mayo Clinic: “Runny Nose”