Chronic Sniffles? Find Out Why Your Nose Won’t Stop Running

5 causes + what you can do about it
Woman sitting at computer wiping nose and surrounded by used tissues

Sniffle. Sniffle. Sniffle. Your nose is a faucet, and there’s no way to turn it off. Your coworkers shoot you irritated looks as you clear your throat (again). Your box of tissues has become your closest companion (and admit it — your sleeve has been called in to pinch hit on a couple of terrible occasions).

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Why is your nose constantly running? We talked to ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician Tony Reisman, MD, to find out what your sniffles mean — and what you can do about them.

Pinpointing the cause

If you’ve been sniffling for weeks or months, you can rule out a cold, Dr. Reisman says. Colds typically go away on their own after about a week. But that narrows down the suspect list only a little bit. Many problems can lie behind that runny nose.

Allergies. If your nose gets stuffy when the pollen flies, you’ve probably already pinpointed the problem: seasonal allergies. But not all allergies are as obvious as hay fever. Many people have year-round reactions to indoor allergens such as mold, dust mites or animal dander.

Non-allergic rhinitis. Your nose can react to irritants that aren’t known allergens, Dr. Reisman says. Exposure to substances such as smoke, fragrances or household chemicals can sometimes cause congestion and inflammation in the nose. Changes in temperature or barometric pressure can also cause non-allergic rhinitis, he adds. (Thanks a lot, weather.)

Nasal sprays. It’s a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease. People often turn to over-the-counter nasal sprays to clear a stuffed-up nose. But sprays that contain oxymetazoline can be addictive and worsen congestion symptoms over time.

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“The more you use it, the more you want it, but the less effective it is,” Dr. Reisman says. “I recommend using those products only with direction from your doctor.”

Nasal obstruction. If you have a sniffling toddler, you’ll definitely want to check that a blueberry or a bead didn’t magically make its way up a nostril. (“It just fell in! Really!”)

But wayward snacks and toys aren’t the only things that can block nasal passages. Other sniffle-inducers include growths and anatomical issues, such as:

  • Nasal polyps and cysts.
  • Deviated septum, when the wall separating your nasal passages veers to one side.
  • Enlarged turbinates, structures in the nose that clean and humidify the air you breathe — handy when they’re working well, not so much when they take up too much nasal real estate.

Chronic sinus infections. Sinus infections famously cause your head to pound and your eyes to throb. But not always. Some infections present with unusual symptoms (like bad breath) — or no symptoms at all.

“A chronic sinus infection might not have any symptoms other than ongoing drainage,” Dr. Reisman says. “Unless you saw an allergist or ENT doctor, you might never know you have it.”

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Treatments for chronic congestion

With such a long list of possible causes, how do you get to the bottom of your runny-nose problems? “It’s tough to diagnose on your own,” Dr. Reisman says. “If symptoms last more than a month and over-the-counter remedies haven’t done the trick, it’s time to see a physician.”

Primary care is a good place to start. If your general practitioner can’t get to the bottom of it, an ENT or allergist should be your next stop.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to guess whether the problem might be due to an allergy or a structural issue, Dr. Reisman says. You might have to visit both specialists to land on the correct diagnosis.

Treatments vary depending on the cause.

  • Antibiotics can beat a chronic sinus infection.
  • Medications such as antihistamines, decongestants and nasal sprays can target symptoms of allergies and non-allergic rhinitis.
  • Surgery can remove polyps or repair structural problems.

So take a deep breath (through your mouth): The cause of chronic sniffling is often benign and usually treatable, Dr. Reisman says. Talk to your doctor about putting an end to your runny nose. Your tissue box might get a little lonely, but your coworkers will thank you.

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