Nasal Obstruction


A nasal obstruction is any type of blockage that makes it difficult to breathe through the nose.

Obstructions can develop slowly over time and lead to habits such as mouth breathing, which may contribute to sleep apnea, snoring problems, and dry mouth

  • It is possible to experience a temporary nasal obstruction from a severe cold or when exposed to allergy triggers.
  • However, blockages that are severe or ongoing often require attention from an ear, nose, and throat doctor.

What Causes Nasal Obstructions?

Bony structures in the nose called turbinates sometimes become irritated or inflamed enough to cause nasal obstructions. It’s also possible for blockages to occur because of a deviated nasal septum affecting the tissue that divides the nose. This tissue may shift too far to one side following a traumatic injury or because of a preexisting deformity.

Large adenoids sometimes block the back area of the nose. Some individuals are born with a small nasal cavity at birth (choanal atresia) that increases the odds of experiencing blockages. A similar condition is a narrowing of the opening in the front of the nose (pyriform aperture stenosis). Foreign objects lodged in the nose can also cause a blockage. Nasal obstructions, regardless of the cause, may contribute to:

  • A loss of smell
  • Congestion that makes it difficult to breathe
  • Sinusitis and related symptoms
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Daytime drowsiness from frequent sleep interruptions at night

How Are Nasal Blockages Diagnosed?

An ear, nose, and throat doctor typically diagnoses nasal obstructions with a physical examination that includes the use of a special lighted instrument to view the nasal cavities. If undiagnosed allergies are suspected, allergy tests may be performed. Nasal X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs may be done to determine the extent of structural problems such as a deviated septum. A nasal culture might be collected if an infection is suspected to determine if it’s bacterial or viral in nature.

Treatment Options

If a nasal obstruction is linked to an infection or inflammation, medication is usually the standard treatment. Options include oral or topical steroids and nasal sprays. Bacterial infections causing tissue swelling are often treated with antibiotics. Medication may be combined with home care suggestions such as performing regular sinus irrigation (“nasal washes”) with a mixture of saline and distilled water.

Swollen or enlarged nostril turbinates may be reduced with radio-frequency energy or the use of a tissue-shaving tool inserted through the nose during an outpatient procedure. For structural problems that are causing blockages, minimally invasive endoscopic surgery may be recommended. Structural repairs are sometimes made with rhinoplasty done for functional purposes. Surgery to remove blockages may also be necessary if medication alone fails to restore normal nasal breathing capabilities.

Sudden (acute) nasal obstructions may be prevented by keeping small objects out of or away from your nose. Your risk of experiencing blockage nasal passages can also be reduced by making an effort to avoid allergy triggers as much as possible. A humidifier or vaporizer can ease problems from obstructions that may develop with a severe cold. In some cases, treating underlying issues like chronic sinusitis may restore normal airflow through nasal passages.