It’s probably up there as one of the most annoying feelings ever. Not only are you congested, but you’re also only stuffed up on one side! It’s like you’re almost in the clear, but that one nostril won’t budge.
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We’ve probably all experienced one stuffed-up nostril at one time or another. But why does this happen? Aren’t all nostrils created equal? As it turns out, congestion in one side of your nose happens for a specific reason — to help balance out airflow between your nasal pathways. But in some cases, it may be a sign of other medical conditions.
Otolaryngologist Michael Benninger, MD, further explains why we sometimes get congested in one nostril, what to look out for and how to find relief.
First, it’s important to know that one side of your nose getting clogged is actually a normal part of your nasal cycle. This is a cycle of congestion and decongestion that your nasal pathways go through to manage airflow.
“Many people don’t realize that every four to six hours, one side of the nose becomes more congested, and the other side decongests,” explains Dr. Benninger. “They switch back and forth in a normal cycle.”
Your nasal passages are lined with blood vessels known as nasal turbinates, which help regulate the flow of air and filter out particles. These turbinates can also swell and shrink alternately in each nostril. So, for example, if your right nostril has increased blood flow and becomes slightly more congested, the other will open up for easier breathing.
Basically, if this cycle is running smoothly, you shouldn’t even notice this switcheroo happening. But sometimes, the feeling is more obvious. And, in some cases, a single nostril being clogged can have another cause.
It’s important to know that the causes of one nostril being clogged can vary widely depending on your situation or any other medical conditions you have. Things like allergies, illnesses and the common cold can accelerate congestion of any kind.
Here are some possible reasons why only one nostril gets clogged:
Just like one arm can feel tingly when you sleep on it, your nose can experience some asymmetry from your bedtime habits, too. It’s common to have stuffiness in the nostril that’s facing down on the pillow when you sleep on your side. If the congestion subsides shortly after you wake up and start walking around, there’s a good chance that sleeping on your side is the culprit.
One note: If you’re experiencing some general congestion due to allergies or the common cold, it’s probably best to sleep on your back and even keep your head slightly elevated (more on that in a moment).
If you have a blockage in one nostril that isn’t going away, it could be the result of a deviated septum. This is when your septum — the cartilage separating your nasal cavities — is off-center. Because of this asymmetry, people may experience more congestion, which is often more noticeable on one side.
“In some cases, there are people who have chronic inflammation and nasal polyps,” notes Dr. Benninger. Frequent or chronic sinus infections could also be related to structural problems that hinder proper drainage from the sinuses.
Allergies, irritants and cold weather can cause increased swelling in one nostril, leading to a sensation of only one side of your nose being clogged up. Even if you aren’t exposed to any allergens, irritants like smoke, strong odors and chemicals can lead to nasal congestion by irritating the nasal passages and causing inflammation. In addition, dry air, especially in heated indoor environments, can dry out your nasal passages and lead to congestion.
Sometimes, a stubborn clogged nostril may be caused by an obvious blockage. Especially in small children, blockage in one nostril might be due to a foreign body that they put in their nose (think: toy cars, crayons or veggies that they’re avoiding).
First, try looking at the inside of your child’s nostril with a flashlight, and see if they can blow their nose and force the object out. But Dr. Benninger warns that if you see thick drainage or pus coming out, it’s time to call your doctor.
A stuffy nose now and again is usually nothing to worry about. After all, we’ve all dealt with nasty colds and allergies. But ifyou consistently experience congestion on one side of your nose, a structural issue might be responsible — possibly related to injury.But if this is the case, you’ll notice additional symptoms beyond just nasal congestion.
Here are some other signs to look out for along with having a single clogged nostril:
If you’re feeling any of the above symptoms paired with your congestion, it may be a good idea to see a healthcare provider.
When it comes to congestion, there are plenty of possible treatments you can try (as well as plenty to avoid). Here are some ways you can relieve congestion in one nostril:
Congestion is a symptom many of us go through. And while it may feel annoying, most of the time, a single clogged nostril isn’t something to worry about. But make sure to pay attention to any other symptoms that may arise along with your clogged nose. If your stuffy nose isn’t going away or is getting worse, it’s a good idea to see a healthcare provider about other treatment options.