7 Reasons Why You're Waking Up Feeling Congested

Morning sniffles can be caused by a range of factors. Here's why it might be happening.
Waking up congested? This could be why.
Justin Paget via Getty Images
Waking up congested? This could be why.

(This story was originally published in 2021.)

If the first thing you do in the morning is reach for your bedside box of tissues to blow your streaming nose – or you find yourself constantly sniffing – listen up.

Dr Claudia Pastides, a GP for online doctor service Babylon GP, tells HuffPost UK one of the major causes of people waking up with a stuffy nose is rhinitis – which is basically the inflammation of the tissues lining the inside of your nose.

The inflammation can be caused by an allergy, referred to as allergic rhinitis, or it may be non-allergic rhinitis, says Dr Pastides.

Here, she walks us through how to deal with the issue – as well as some of the other reasons you could be awaking bunged up.

1. Allergies

The most common contender is likely to be an allergy. Allergic rhinitis is thought to impact around one in five people. “It’s commonly caused by something in the environment around us triggering an allergic response,” says Dr Pastides. “The allergic response causes the lining of the nose to swell up and produce more mucus.” Cue: all of the snot.

Some of the most common allergens wreaking havoc on our nostrils include pollen, mould and dust. “Some people only get allergic rhinitis at certain times of the year – for example, if your allergy is to certain pollens,” adds Dr Pastides. “Or it may be year-round – if, for example, your allergy is to dust.”

If you’re often really congested first thing in the morning, but the issue resolves itself over the course of the day, it might mean you were exposed to a particular allergen overnight – for example, dust, dust mites or pet fur. Or, if you have hay fever, you might notice it’s worse in the morning when pollen counts are high.

Thinking about when in the day you struggle with the issue – and whether it’s seasonal – can help you determine what it is you’re allergic to. Failing that, you can take an allergy test. Dr Pastides recommends discovering what the allergen is so you’re able to avoid it, although she notes this is easier said than done. Most people won’t know what the allergen is – or simply cannot avoid it.

If this is the case, you can take over the counter medicines such as antihistamines or regularly flush your nose with saline water. But if it’s affecting your day-to-day life and not improving, speak to a doctor about it as there are prescribed nasal sprays which can help, she adds.

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2. The common cold

You’ve probably had less colds over the past year, as you’ve been exposed to fewer germs while spending more time at home. But that doesn’t mean there’s zero risk of getting one. If you have a short period (one or two weeks) of waking up congested, it could be because of a cold attacking the lining of the nose.

Symptoms of a cold, which appear gradually, include: a blocked or runny nose (obviously), a sore throat, headache, muscle ache, cough, sneezing, a raised temperature, pressure in your ears and face, and loss of taste and smell.

“Allowing the cold to run its course is often the best treatment,” says Dr Pastides. You’ll want to rest up, get plenty of sleep, drink lots of fluids and possibly take painkillers for any aches and pains.

3. Your environment

Really cold or hot weather, humidity, or being in very smoky environments can all cause you to wake up with a stuffy nose. Avoiding these circumstances will stop the blocked nose, says Dr Pastides.

If you can’t avoid them – we get it, you can’t control the weather – there are things you can do to ease the issue.If it’s really cold, for example, wrap a scarf over your nose to warm the air around your face or go to sleep with the heating turned on low.

4. Pregnancy

Yes, that’s right. Being pregnant causes a whole host of bodily changes, one of which is inflammation of the nose lining due to hormones.

Sadly, there’s not a huge amount you can do about this. “The blocked nose will settle down when you’re no longer pregnant, but in the meantime it may help to lift up the head end of the bed a bit,” says Dr Pastides.

“If you’re still struggling, it’s a good idea to speak to a healthcare professional about it and see what treatments are suitable to use in pregnancy.”

5. Overusing nasal sprays

More patients are turning up in hospital with self-induced rhinitis caused by overuse of nasal sprays like Sudafed or Vicks Sinex, according to Paul Spraggs, an ENT surgeon at Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

“These are medicines you buy over the counter for short-term use in colds, but people tend to get addicted to them,” he told HuffPost UK. “That causes a type of rhinitis we see in secondary care a lot, which is very difficult to treat.”

If you’ve been using nasal decongestant sprays a lot, they might – ironically – be causing your blocked nose. If you suspect this might be the case, speak to your GP about it.

6. Polyps

Nasal polyps are painless, fleshy swellings that grow inside your nose. While they’re not usually serious, they can keep growing and block your nose if not treated, states the NHS.

Symptoms are similar to a common cold – blocked nose, runny nose, constant need to swallow, reduced sense of smell or taste, nosebleeds and snoring – however while colds tend to disappear after a week or so, symptoms of polyps will not clear until the issue is treated.

If you suspect you might have polyps, speak to your GP who should be able to offer a steroid nasal spray to shrink the growths. If it doesn’t improve after about 10 weeks, they might suggest surgery to remove the growths.

7. Sinusitis

Inflammation of your sinuses can cause a runny nose in the morning – the issue can be acute (short lasting for about one or two weeks, often due to an infection) or chronic (long lasting), says Dr Pastides.

Sinusitis is common after a cold or flu, with symptoms including: pain, swelling and tenderness around your cheeks, eyes or forehead; a blocked nose; a reduced sense of smell; green or yellow mucus from your nose; a sinus headache; a high temperature; toothache and bad breath.

“Although acute sinusitis is often short-lived and typically gets better by itself, polyps and chronic sinusitis should be diagnosed by a doctor and may require specific treatment,” says Dr Pastides.

But if a blocked nose has been going on for a while and isn’t improving, or if you have other symptoms such as a fever that isn’t settling or you’re feeling generally unwell, it’s wise to bring this up to your GP.