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Decongestants and Nasal Sprays

Decongestants or nasal sprays may help relieve a stuffy nose.

Decongestants shrink swollen tissues in the space behind the eardrum (middle ear camera.gif). This may relieve pressure and pain. They can be taken by mouth (oral) or in nose drops or sprays. Oral decongestants are probably more effective and provide longer relief than drops or sprays, but they cause more side effects.

Sprays and drops provide rapid but temporary relief. Sprays and drops are less likely to interact with other medicines, which can be a problem with oral decongestants.

Decongestant precautions

  • Look for a single-ingredient decongestant that contains pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine.
  • Be careful with these medicines. They may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems, so check the label first. If you do use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and weight. For your baby, you can use a suction bulb to gently remove mucus from your baby's nose.
  • Do not use medicated nasal sprays or drops more often than directed and not longer than 3 days. Continued use will cause your mucous membranes to swell more than before using the spray (rebound effect).
  • Drink extra fluids when you are taking cold medicines.
  • If you are not certain about which decongestant to use, ask your pharmacist or doctor for help.

For more information about medicine safety, see the topics Over-the-Counter Medicine Precautions and Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.

You also can make a saline solution nasal spray or use a humidifier to help thick or dried mucus to drain. These will not cause rebound symptoms.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerChristine Hahn, MD - Epidemiology
Last RevisedJuly 9, 2012

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 09, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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