Post-nasal drip is one of those health issues that can be filed under livable, but completely annoying. After all, regularly swallowing, clearing your throat, and even gagging on mucus in the back of your throat isn’t exactly the stuff dreams are made of.
You’ve probably dealt with post-nasal drip in varying degrees your whole life. But even though you can probably ID the symptoms as soon as it ramps up, you may have some questions about what, exactly, is going on in your throat. Below, doctors dish on everything you should know, including how to stop post-nasal drip ASAP.
What is post-nasal drip?
Post-nasal drip starts in your sinuses, which are air-filled cavities located under the bony base of the cheeks, behind your forehead and eyebrows, on both sides of your nose bridge, and behind your nose directly in front of your brain, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).
Your sinuses are lined with a thin layer of mucus, which latch onto dust, germs, and anything else that may be floating in the air, the ACAAI explains. Small, hair-like projections in the sinuses help move the mucus (and anything hanging out in it) into the back of the throat. From there, it trickles down and into your stomach.
Post-nasal drip is actually a continuous process that’s a normal bodily function, says George Scangas, M.D., a sinus surgeon at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and an instructor in Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery at Harvard Medical School. “The average person makes about a quart of mucus in their nose, sinus, and mouth per day, and we all swallow that mucus,” he says. “While everyone has a small degree of post-nasal drainage, we do not all sense it.”
But post-nasal drip can be more noticeable when you’re producing more mucus than normal, like when your allergies flare up, you have a cold or flu, or you’re dealing with a sinus infection, says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network.
What are the symptoms of post-nasal drip?
Even though post-nasal drip is happening all the time, you may experience other symptoms when it’s more noticeable than usual, Dr. Parikh says. Those include:
Feeling like you need to clear your throat
You’ll also likely have symptoms of whatever condition is causing your post-nasal drip in the first place, Dr. Scangas says. “If it’s overproduction from the nose and sinuses, you’ll see the symptoms getting worse when your allergies get worse, when your eyes get more itchy, and when your nose is more congested,” he says. “On the other hand with chronic sinusitis, it’s often more consistent post-nasal drip. This can present with increased sinus pressure, decreased smell, and nasal congestion.”
However, if you don’t have any nasal symptoms with your post-nasal drip, it could be more of an acid reflux issue, Dr. Scangas says. This occurs when the end of your esophagus does not close as it should, allowing the contents of your stomach to leak back up and cause irritation, often in the form of heartburn.
How long does post-nasal drip last?
It really depends on what’s causing it, Dr. Scangas says. “The best way to make it go away is to try and differentiate which underlying causes are at the root of the problem, and then either treating the acid reflux, chronic sinusitis, or allergic rhinitis,” he says.
While the timeline can vary, if your post-nasal drip is caused by allergies—which it often is—it can last “as long as the ongoing exposure to pollen is present,” says Aaron Clark, D.O., a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. For colds, you’re usually looking at anywhere from seven to 10 days, he says.
How to stop post-nasal drip
Technically, this isn’t something you want to stop entirely, given that post-nasal drip helps clear out your sinuses. But, if it’s particularly intense, there are a few things you can do to lighten the flow:
✔️Figure out the source.
“Identify what is triggering it and treat the trigger,” Dr. Parikh says. So, if it’s seasonal allergies, visit an allergist and figure out what’s causing your symptoms and the best course of treatment. If you suspect you have a sinus infection, talk to your doctor to ensure a proper diagnosis.
✔️Then, consider OTC medications.
If allergies are the issue, nasal steroids like Flonase or Nasacort and long-acting antihistamines like Allegra, Claritin, Zyrtec, or Xyzal can help, Dr. Parikh says. If you think reflux may be an issue, consider trying OTC stomach acid reducers, like TUMS or Pepcid, when heartburn flares up.
✔️Make some lifestyle changes.
If you suspect acid reflux is behind your issue, Dr. Scangas also recommends doing your best to avoid spicy foods (or other food triggers, such as coffee, tomato-based sauces, or chocolate), eat at least two to three hours before bed, and sleep with your head elevated.
However, if these changes do not help or OTC meds don’t offer relief, talk to your doctor, who may be able to offer prescription medications if you have a severe form of reflux, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
✔️Use a saline nasal rinse.
Post-nasal drip starts in your sinuses, and clearing those out with a sinus rinse can help ease up the onslaught, Dr. Parikh says.
If you’re tempted to use a decongestant, keep this in mind: They can cause a rebound effect and make your underlying issue and post-nasal drip worse if you use them for more than three to five days. “I usually don’t really recommend them,” Dr. Parikh says.
Bottom line: If you’ve tried the tips above and still seem to be grappling with intense post-nasal drip, Dr. Parikh says it’s a good idea to rope in your doctor. They should be able to do an evaluation and recommend a personalized treatment plan for you.
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