When the lining of the nose swells due to allergies or an illness, a person may get a runny or stuffy nose that can restrict the amount of air flowing through the nostrils. Nasal congestion typically worsens when lying down, which can interfere with sleep and increase the risk of snoring and sleep-related breathing disorders like obstructive sleep apnea.

Treating a blocked nose at night can help people breathe easier and get better sleep. Nasal irrigation, sleeping with a humidifier in the room, and elevating the head with a pillow may all provide relief. We go over these and other strategies for getting better sleep when congested.

Avoid Congestion-Causing Triggers Before Bed

Some people are sensitive to allergens and other environmental triggers that can cause respiratory symptoms like nasal congestion or a runny nose. Avoiding triggers during the day may prevent nasal congestion at night. Examples of triggers for nasal congestion include:

  • Pollen
  • Pet dander
  • Dust
  • Mold and fungi
  • Smoke from cigarettes, stoves, or fireplaces
  • Cleaning products
  • Car exhaust
  • Scented products

“I often recommend looking for the culprit—whether it’s pollen, dust, etc.—and investing in a good air purifier.”

Dr. Abhinav Singh, Sleep Physician

Elevate Your Head 

Elevating the head at night could help reduce feelings of congestion. Lying down often makes congestion worse, perhaps because of changes in blood flow that occur in this position.

Some people find it easiest to use a wedge pillow to keep the head elevated while sleeping. It may also be helpful to use a thick pillow or two regular pillows under the head.

Try Nasal Irrigation

Nasal irrigation is the process of rinsing each nostril with salt water, which can flush away some of the congestion-causing mucus in the nasal passages. The saline mixture can also moisturize the nasal passages, reduce irritants, and help prevent mucus from accumulating in the airways. 

Irrigating each nostril once or twice a day may help clear nasal passages. If a person uses other nasal medications, their doctor may suggest irrigating the nose before taking the medications to help them work better. 

People can make their own saltwater solution, making sure to use boiled, distilled, or purified water. Or they can ask a pharmacist for an irrigation kit. Individuals using nasal irrigation should be diligent about cleaning and sterilizing the equipment they use to flush the nose to prevent the introduction of bacteria into their nasal passages.

Wear Adhesive Strips

Placing adhesive strips on the nose before sleeping can relieve overnight congestion for some people. 

These strips are available in different styles. Some fit across the bridge of the nose and help open the nasal passages to allow more airflow. Other strips are larger, stretching across the cheeks to open up more areas of the nasal passages. Either type may be beneficial for people who experience congestion at night. 

Try Steam or a Humidifier

Before going to sleep, consider taking a warm, steamy shower. Steam can thin mucus in the nasal passages to help it drain. It may also be helpful to run the shower, close the bathroom door, and inhale warm steam for several minutes instead. Doing this a few times during the day may help clear the nose. 

Running a humidifier in the bedroom overnight can also prevent dryness that may trigger nasal irritation and congestion. Humidifiers send continuous moisture into the air to make the room more humid. The humidity works similarly to steam treatment by thinning congestion-causing mucus.

When using a humidifier:

  • Follow all manufacturer instructions carefully
  • Use purified water rather than tap water
  • Empty and clean the humidifier daily
  • Keep the humidifier at least six feet away from the sleeping area
  • Set it to a maximum of 50% humidity to avoid mold growth in the room

Drink Enough Fluids During the Day 

Keeping the body hydrated with enough clear fluids, such as water, broth, or tea, can help thin mucus and drain it from the sinuses to relieve congestion. 

Most adults need between 90 and 125 fluid ounces of water each day from both foods and drinks. However, some people may need more water, especially if they are physically active, live in a hot climate, or are ill. 

Limiting alcohol may also help prevent a runny or stuffy nose for some people. Alcohol contains histamine, a compound that some people are more sensitive to than others. A person with histamine sensitivity may experience respiratory symptoms, like a runny nose or excessive sneezing, after drinking alcohol. 

Consider Medications 

Certain medications can often relieve congestion or a runny nose that interferes with sleep. However, the right medication depends on the cause of nasal congestion. A doctor can help pinpoint the underlying cause of congestion to find the best treatment for a blocked nose at night. 

Antihistamines

Antihistamines treat the symptoms of allergies, including a stuffy or runny nose, which may help people sleep better. Some antihistamines also help with congestion that is not related to a known allergy. However, antihistamines may not be effective for cold-related nasal congestion

Sleepers should be aware that some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, so it may be best to take them before bed rather than during the day. 

Nasal Steroids

Nasal steroids decrease nasal inflammation and reduce mucus, making it easier to breathe through the nose. Nasal steroids are available in spray form and may reduce nasal congestion resulting from allergic or non-allergic causes.

Decongestants

Decongestants relieve a stuffy nose by reducing inflammation in the nasal passages. People may take decongestants orally or as a nasal spray.

“Frequent decongestant use may have a stimulating effect, so be careful when choosing one.”

Dr. Abhinav Singh, Sleep Physician

Because of the risks associated with their use, experts do not recommend taking decongestants unless other treatments are ineffective. Decongestants can raise blood pressure, make it more difficult to sleep, and may cause nasal congestion if taken too often.

When to Talk to Your Doctor About Congestion 

If you are concerned about nasal congestion or your ability to sleep, talking to a health care provider can help. Also, be sure to contact a doctor if your congestion continues for over three weeks. Experiencing any of the following symptoms along with a stuffy or runny nose may also warrant a doctor visit:

  • Fever
  • Throat pain
  • Yellow or white spots in the throat or on the tonsils
  • Mucus-producing cough lasting more than 10 days
  • Nasal discharge that is not yellow or white
  • Facial swelling
  • Blurry vision

Furthermore, be sure to note if your nasal symptoms seem worse on nights after being exposed to something that might be triggering them, like pollen or animal dander. Your doctor may want to test you for allergies to determine an effective path for treatment.

Medical Disclaimer: The content on this page should not be taken as medical advice or used as a recommendation for any specific treatment or medication. Always consult your doctor before taking a new medication or changing your current treatment.

Learn more about our Editorial Team

References
5 Sources

  1. Lieberman, P. L. (2022, November 7). Patient education: Nonallergic rhinitis (runny or stuffy nose) (Beyond the basics). In J. Corren (Ed.). UpToDate., Retrieved April 3, 2023, from

    https://www.uptodate.com/contents/nonallergic-rhinitis-runny-or-stuffy-nose-beyond-the-basics
  2. Naclerio, R. M., Bachert, C., & Baraniuk, J. N. (2010). Pathophysiology of nasal congestion. International Journal of General Medicine, 3, 47–57.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20463823/
  3. DeShazo, R. D., & Kemp, S. F. (2022, August 17). Pharmacotherapy of allergic rhinitis. In J. Corren (Ed.)., Retrieved April 3, 2023, from

    https://www.uptodate.com/contents/pharmacotherapy-of-allergic-rhinitis
  4. Tuck, C. J., Biesiekierski, J. R., Schmid-Grendelmeier, P., & Pohl, D. (2019). Food intolerances. Nutrients, 11(7), 1684.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31336652/
  5. Simasek, M., & Blandino, D. A. (2007). Treatment of the common cold. American Family Physician, 75(4), 515-520.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17323712/

Learn More About Physical Health and Sleep