Many of us dismiss a blocked or stuffy nose as little more than an inconvenient irritation, but it can significantly impair our quality of life and has been linked to fatigue, headaches, sleep disorders and learning difficulties. With local experts suggesting that at least one in five South Africans is likely to suffer from the condition at any given time, it's important we protect our health by keeping our nasal passages congestion-free.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Commonly known as a stuffy or blocked nose, nasal congestion is a far more serious health concern than many people realise. An important cause is rhinitis, which is defined as an inflammation of the nasal membranes1. It has numerous different causes, from pollen, animal hair, pollution and mould to viral and bacterial infections. These airborne irritants (allergens) trigger a release of mediators in the eyes, nose and throat, which causes inflammation and fluid production in the linings of the nasal passages, sinuses, and eyes.
According to the American Lung Association, infectious rhinitis accounts for more doctor visits than any other condition in the United States and experts suggest the situation is similar here in South Africa. "The condition has a massive influence here in South Africa as well," confirms Dr Raymond L Friedman, otorhinolaryngologist at the Sandton and Linksfield Clinics in Johannesburg. "It is an extremely common condition. For example, we know that between 20 to 25% of South Africans suffer from allergic rhinitis and that the majority of acute paediatric visits to a doctor will include rhinitis in one form or another."
Most of us dismiss nasal congestion or rhinitis as little more than an inconvenient irritation and, while the condition is not usually life-threatening, complications can occur and it can significantly impair your quality of life since it affects sleep, school, social life and work.
Apart from the extremely uncomfortable symptoms commonly associated with nasal congestion, such as frequent sneezing, itching (of nose, eyes, ears and palate), rhinorrhea and postnasal drip, it can also contribute to more serious conditions, such as learning difficulties, sleep disorders, and fatigue.
For example, 43% of people suffering from severe allergic rhinitis have trouble sleeping. Another common complaint of rhinitis sufferers experiencing nasal congestion is anosmia, the loss of their sense of smell, which usually also means a loss of taste and an inability to appreciate the flavour of food.
"It is well established that it can significantly impair a person's quality of life," observes Dr Friedman. "It can lead to speech and swallowing difficulties, poor concentration, missed school and work days. It can also result in significant complications and serious co-morbidities, such as asthma, sinusitis and otitis media (ear infections)." Why is nasal congestion and rhinitis so common?
Many health practitioners consider the nasal passages to be the doorway for most illnesses. Although a key function of the nose is to clean the air we breathe - catching potentially harmful allergens before they reach the throat and lungs - it is often overloaded through high exposure.
Some commentators argue that it should be of little surprise that - under assault from chemicals, fragrances, pollution, dust, pollen etc. - our nostrils are under enormous stress, which is resulting in a continuous rise in the number of people suffering from various forms of nasal congestion and respiratory illnesses.
"Here in South Africa, the woes of allergic rhinitis relate more to the fact we have severe overcrowding, enormous populations and large people movements," clarifies Dr Freidman, "which makes infection spread more rapidly and contact with new bacteria and viruses much more frequent." The importance of staying congestion-free
Received wisdom is that an effective, healthy, congestion-free nasal filtering system is a vital part of the body's immune defence system. "Absolutely," agrees Dr Freidman. "It is your most basic, fundamental hygiene and essential for normal health. The nose is central to so many functions and, if you can't breathe properly, you are going to quickly run into problems that affect your daily life, such as not being able to sleep properly. Not only that, epidemiologists have worked out that not treating rhinitis adequately first time can end up costing you four times more."
While there is a lot that you can do to ease your nasal congestion, there are, of course, limits to what you should do on your own. "In most instances, it is transient and short-term," notes Dr Freidman, "but any persistent or unrelenting infective cases, where the nose is unable to function properly for more than seven to 10 days, cases where the condition seems to have cleared up and then gets worse again, or cases that are very severe, should be seen by a doctor and properly diagnosed." Tips for staying congestion-free this spring:
- Avoid very dry or very humid environments - use a humidifier in your home (by your bed, in particular) and where you work to put moisture back into the air if it is dry.
- Use a topical nasal decongestant spray when your nose feels stuffy to reduce the swelling. Preferably, one that doesn't dry out the nasal cavity or cause drowsiness.
- Keep away from potential irritants like chemical pollutants and cigarette smoke.
- Limit the amount of time you spend in swimming pools, as chlorine and water can irritate your nasal passages and cause inflammation.
- Inhale steam - linger in a hot shower or carefully bend over a pan of boiling water and breathe in.
- Avoid alcohol - it can dry out your nasal passages and aggravate congestion.
- Sleep with your head elevated.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially before you eat. Make minimal contact with co-workers and family members who have colds.
. Sheikh, J. Allergic Rhinitis. Medscape Reference. Feb 2011. (http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/134825-overview)
. Dr Raymond L Friedman, otorhinolaryngologist at the Sandton and Linksfield Clinics in Johannesburg. Stated during interview: "we know that between 20 to 25% of South Africans suffer from allergic rhinitis". 11 May 2011.
. American Lung Association (http://www.lungusa.org/lung-disease/influenza/in-depth-resources/facts-about-the-common-cold.html)
. Stallergenes. Allergic Rhinitis: Impact on quality of life. June 2011. (http://www.stallergenes.com/en/understanding-allergies/what-is-allergy/impact-on-quality-of-life.html