Medically reviewed by
Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
5 min read
Most of us know this feeling. You’re congested and you’re feeling sinus pressure; your nose is stuffed, but only on one side. Try as you might, this one nostril stays blocked. It’s a bit of a nuisance. What’s the cause of this and what can be done about it?
Your nasal cycle is the cycle of congestion and decongestion that occurs in your nose naturally throughout daily life. The underlying mechanism has to do with an asymmetry in blood flow between the nasal cavities. Blood vessels can swell and change the airflow in one nostril in comparison with the other. This cycle is controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS) and lasts around 2 hours per cycle. When the nasal cycle is functioning properly, you’re unlikely to even know it’s happening.
When your nose gets stuffed, it’s usually because of inflamed blood vessels in your sinuses. These blood vessels can become inflamed by illness or a sinus infection. The phenomenon of having one side of your nose blocked can be caused by a number of other factors, which we’ll explore below.
Some potential causes for having one nostril blocked include:
If nasal congestion is a problem for you, it’s important to understand whether you have a regular stuffy nose or whether you’re dealing with structural issues in the nose. Some symptoms of structural issues can include nosebleeds, facial pain, noisy breathing during sleep, awareness of the nasal cycle, and blockage of one or both nostrils. If your symptoms don’t subside, you should talk to a medical professional to see whether something structural is at play.
Humidifiers are a popular way to treat nasal congestion. A humidifier increases the humidity in a room by converting water into moisture and gradually pumping into the air. People have reported that breathing in the moist air can soothe your sinuses and help drain your nasal cavities of mucus. Some also claim that the moist air can help pacify the swollen vessels in your nose that are causing the congestion. However, while anecdotal accounts offer some hope for the effectiveness of humidifiers, studies have yet to demonstrate their effectiveness. If you decide to try a humidifier, be sure to keep the water in it clean; remember, that water is going to be released into the air you breathe.
A nasal saline spray can be helpful for boosting the moisture levels in your nasal passages, and it can do so without negatively impacting your airways. Studies have shown that saline spray can help clear the mucus out of your nasal passages. Some saline sprays contain decongestant medications, as well, but you should consult with a medical professional before using this type of spray.
As any doctor will tell you, it’s important to stay hydrated when you’re experiencing symptoms of a cold or flu, including nasal congestion. Staying hydrated can help thin the mucus in your nasal passages, which can help you clear out your nostrils when you blow your nose. Another benefit of thinning the mucus is that you’ll feel less pressure in your sinuses. As has been mentioned, the sinus pressure is a major cause of that annoying clogged feeling. If your throat is bothering you, you can even incorporate warm drinks, like tea, to help ease your throat symptoms while also boosting hydration.
You’ve probably heard people recommend a hot shower for dealing with congestion. It turns out that there’s research that backs up this idea. Steam from a shower may help to thin out your mucus, reduce the swelling in your blood vessels, and thereby make it easier for you to clear out your nostrils.
To get the same effect, you can also breathe in steam from hot water in your sink. Simply turn the hot water on, place a towel over your head, and put your head over the sink. Breathe the steam in. You can also use a warm compress on your forehead, which can stimulate pumping action in your blood vessels and mucus membranes. This can help relieve sinus pressure.
When you’re trying to feel better, there’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep. Of course, as anyone who’s ever had a stuffy nose will tell you, it’s not always easy getting sleep when your nostrils are clogged. It’s important to think about how you sleep, too. When you’re congested, lying flat on your back can worsen mucus buildup and increase sinus pressure, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Using some pillows to prop your head up – keeping your head above your heart – can be a better sleep position that allows you to breathe with greater ease.
There are certain over-the-counter decongestant medications that may be able to help with your stuffy nose. Talk to a doctor or pharmacist about which option is best for you, whether a decongestant, antihistamine, or allergy medication. There are also medications available in different forms, including liquid, tablets, or even nasal sprays. These can sometimes help provide some relief, reducing sinus pressure and clearing your nasal passages.
Having your nose blocked on one side – or at all – is a frustrating problem that has negative effects on daily life. This can happen when your regular nasal cycle is altered by illness or by sinus pressure. If your symptoms persist, you may want to talk to a doctor about whether your nose has underlying structural problems. Otherwise, there are some helpful steps you can take to help alleviate your stuffiness. Ultimately there’s no substitute for taking good care of yourself and getting some rest.