It's not uncommon to experience nasal stuffiness and congestion while exercising during pollen season -- but sometimes those symptoms may not be related to allergies or may occur while exercising indoors. If this happens, you may be suffering from a condition called exercise-induced rhinitis, or EIR. Although it's not dangerous, EIR can affect your energy levels and make your workouts less effective.
Rhinitis is the term for inflammation of nasal mucous membranes that causes excess mucus production and post-nasal congestion, and in some cases, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes. EIR is a form of rhinitis that can affect both allergic and nonallergic athletes and lead to disturbed sleep, daytime sleepiness and fatigue. One study published in the "Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology" in 2003 found that 40 percent of EIR patients said that the condition adversely affected athletic performance.
Blood flow is increased during exercise, which in turn enlarges the size of nasal blood vessels and may cause your nose to swell and drip excess mucosal fluid. If you already suffer from chronic post-nasal inflammation, environmental triggers can also prompt congestion. Some environmental triggers include dust in a gym, smog outdoors or chlorine in a pool. Rapid temperature and humidity changes can also trigger the membranes inside your nose to swell and become stuffy, as can exercising in cold air. Elite runners may experience chronic nasal dehydration that causes an excessive thickening of secretions.
What to Do
For mild to moderate cases, over-the-counter oral decongestants and saline or corticosteroid nasal sprays may be enough to thin mucus and soothe your nasal membranes. For more severe symptoms, you may need prescription antihistamine sprays such as azelastine and olopatadine hydrochloride or an anti-drip anticholinergic nasal spray like ipratropium.
How to Prevent It
Prior to and following exercising, rinse your nasal passages with a saline solution via a specially designed bulb squeeze syringe or a neti pot. Use a humidifier in your work and sleep area or breathe in steam from a warm shower or wet sauna to loosen mucus. Drink plenty of non-caffeinated fluids daily, even when not exercising, but especially during workouts. Caffeinated beverages can cause dehydration and aggravate symptoms. When exercising outdoors in the cold, try a mask that helps create warm inhaled air.