Mucus is a substance normally produced by the body. It serves an important role, as it moistens, cleans and protects the lining of the nose and sinuses. But when this mucus is abnormally thick or produced in excess, its presence can be more noticeable — and annoying — as it drains down the back of the throat.
This sinus drainage, or post-nasal drip, leads to coughing and irritation, and contributes to the misery of colds and seasonal allergies. While sometimes medical attention is indicated, this symptom can usually be alleviated by home treatments.
Step 1: Manage Allergies
Sinus drainage is often caused by allergies, since the related immune response triggers an increased production of thin mucus — leading to the classic allergy symptoms — runny nose and post-nasal drip. Effective management of allergies is the best way to curtail these symptoms.
If your allergy symptoms are new, see your doctor for evaluation and treatment recommendations. Home management of allergies may include over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines, prescription nasal sprays or other allergy medications. Also take steps to avoid the substances that cause your allergy symptoms.
Step 2: Manage Cold Symptoms
The common cold can also trigger excessive mucus production, which causes sinus drainage as it makes its way down the throat. There is no cure for the common cold, but comfort measures can ease symptoms. Drinking plenty of water and taking an OTC medication that contains guaifenesin are ways to thin the mucus secretions, making it easier to clear mucus from throat, nose and lungs.
Nasal irrigation, a practice of washing out the nasal passages, may reduce sinus drainage by clearing excess mucus and debris from the nose and sinus passages. It may also help to sleep with the head comfortably propped up, to prevent mucus buildup in the throat.
Step 3: Stay Well Hydrated
Dehydration can cause mucus to get thick and sticky, causing the sinus drainage to become much more noticeable and bothersome. To counter these symptoms, keep your body and mucous membranes hydrated.
Drink plenty of fluids and add moisture to your indoor air — and your mucous membranes — by using a humidifier. Saline nasal sprays can also help moisturize the nasal passages and sinuses.
Step 4: Treat Infections
Yellow or green mucus can indicate the presence of infection, but color is not a reliable way to tell if your infection is bacterial, which requires antibiotic therapy, or viral, which tends to go away on its own.
So if you've been sick for several days and are not getting better, see a doctor. This visit will help determine if you have an infection that requires treatment. After this infection clears up, the post-nasal drip should go away.
Drinking hot liquids may also help thin mucus secretions. This may explain why many people feel better after drinking hot tea or eating chicken soup.
Sinus drainage can be uncomfortable, but in general this symptom does not reflect a serious condition.
However, contact your doctor if you develop a fever or have sinus pain, or if you have discharge that is foul smelling, bloody, or thick green or yellow. Also let your doctor know if your symptoms persist more more than 10 days despite home treatment.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
- Canadian Family Physician: Saline Nasal Irrigation
- American Academy of Otolaryngology: Post-Nasal Drip
- Thorax: Recommendations for the Management of Cough in Adults
- Merck Manual: Allergic Rhinitis
- Merck Manual: Common Cold
- Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care: Sputum Colour for Diagnosis of a Bacterial Infection in Patients With Acute Cough