man blowing his nose

Stuffy Noses And COPD: What’s The Deal?

Many people with breathing disorders — like COPD — also suffer from medical conditions that may make it hard to breathe through your nose. Here’s all you need to know.

Some statistics

A 2007 study showed that up to 75% of COPDers also suffered from some form of nasal inflammation, and about a third of people diagnosed with sinusitis also had lower airway inflammation, which would be either asthma or COPD. So, there is quite a prevalence of nasal inflammation caused by sinusitis or rhinitis among the COPD community. (1)

What causes a stuffy nose?

The most common cause in COPD patients is inflammation of the blood vessels in your nose and sinuses. This inflammation may cause symptoms — such as a stuffy nose — resulting in a diagnosis of sinusitis or rhinitis.

Why does COPD cause a stuffy nose?  

Most cases of COPD result from long-term exposure to airway irritants, such as chemicals in cigarette smoke or in the air at work. These irritants cause damage to cells and genes resulting in an abnormal immune response that causes inflammation of the lower airway (bronchioles) and lung tissue. This is what causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD flare-ups may be caused by airway irritants, respiratory viruses, and allergens. That said since your upper airway (nose and sinuses) is exposed to these same irritants, it only makes sense that they may also be affected with inflammation. (1-2)

What is the purpose of this inflammation?

The purpose of this inflammation is to trap airway irritants (like microscopic particles) and pathogens (like viruses) to keep them out of your lungs. This inflammation irritates goblet cells to make them produce more sputum. Airway irritants or pathogens are balled up inside the sputum and then brought to your upper airway so you can swallow it or spit it up.

Why does nasal inflammation cause a stuffy nose?

The increased sputum in your nasal passages can become dry or thick and clog your nose and sinuses. Along with irritating goblet cells, it also irritates nerve endings in the area. This is what causes that annoying itchy or scratchy feeling in your nose when you suffer from rhinitis or sinusitis.

What is rhinitis?

Also commonly referred to as hay fever. It is inflammation of the mucous membrane lining your nasal passages. It can be caused by a normal immune response to respiratory viruses that cause the common cold. In these cases, it’s diagnosed as non-allergic rhinitis. It may also be caused by an abnormal immune response to common allergens, such as dust mites, pollen, mold spores, and animal dander. In these cases, it’s diagnosed as allergic rhinitis. Common symptoms include nasal irritation and sneezing, along with a stuffy and runny nose.

What is the treatment for rhinitis?

The best treatment may be avoidance of allergens and respiratory viruses, although since allergens and viruses are so ubiquitous, they are often hard to avoid. Allergy medicines such as antihistamines, leukotriene antagonists such as Singulair,  and nasal sprays that contain corticosteroids are common treatments. Sometimes rinsing your nose with salt water solutions may prove helpful. Your doctor may also have other suggestions, such as desensitization or allergy shots.

What is sinusitis?

It’s nasal inflammation and nasal stuffiness that may result in sinus infections that are usually bacterial in origin. Other symptoms include post nasal drip, trouble breathing through your nose, pain, and loss of the ability to taste or smell things. It can be acute, lasting a short time, such as what might occur with the common cold. It may also be chronic, lasting a long time, such as might occur with allergies, asthma, COPD. They can also be caused by nasal polyps and deviated septums. It may also be associated with rhinitis, in which case it may be called rhinosinusitis.  (3)

How is sinusitis treated?

It can be treated with medicine, such as saline rinses and sprays, nasal steroids, or antibiotics. Treatment may also involve treating the underlying condition, such as allergies, deviated septum, nasal polyps, etc. (3)

What are nasal anomalies?

There are many different anomalies that can occur inside your sinuses and nasal passages that can cause a stuffy nose, the most common of which are nasal polyps. A common cause of nasal polyps is chronic inflammation, such as that caused by chronic sinusitis. Another one is a deviated septum, where your nasal septum is deviated to one side, making one nasal passage narrow. Airflow may be further obstructed by swelling. Nasal anomalies can either be treated with medicine or surgery. (4-5)

How do you get a proper diagnosis and treatment?

If you have a diagnosis of COPD, it should be suspected that you also might have or develop at some point nasal inflammation. So, inspecting your nose should be a part of your regular screening at your doctor’s appointments. Your doctor may try to treat you medically. However, if your symptoms persist, you may be referred to a specialty doctor called an otorhinolaryngologist, or an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor (ENT).

What are the advantages of nasal breathing?

Derek Cummings, an excellent writer who also has COPD, wrote a nice post on this subject called “Learning To Breathe Right Is The Hardest Of All.” He spells out all the wonderful benefits of breathing properly, meaning through your nose.  If you have trouble breathing through your nose, then you have no choice but to breathe through your mouth — it’s the path of least resistance. But, you will also miss out on all the benefits of breathing through your nose.

What does this mean for you?

I think a lot of people chalk up stuffy noses as just something they have to deal with, while in reality, it is quite often quite treatable. If you suffer from a stuffy nose, make sure you talk to your COPD doctor about this so that you can get the proper treatment you deserve so you can breathe easier and live better with COPD

 

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The COPD.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
View References
  1. Kim, JS., “Nasal and sinus inflammation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” COPD, 2007, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17530509, accessed 6/15/17
  2. Piotrowska, et al., "Rhinosinusitis in COPD: symptoms, mucous changes, nasal lavage cells and eicosanoids," international Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2898086/, 6/30/17
  3. Chronic Sinusitis, Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chronic-sinusitis/symptoms-causes/dxc-20211170, accessed 6/20/17
  4. Nasal Polyps, Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nasal-polyps/symptoms-causes/dxc-20267326, accessed 6/230/17
  5. Deviated Septum. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/deviated-septum/home/ovc-20200967. Accessed 6/20/17

Comments

View Comments (8)
  • Radar6Henry
    2 years ago

    I am new to this site Enjoyed your article about COPD & stuffy noses. Let me tell you i have been to 3 PULM. DOCS & they look at you like you are crazy ,so no answers their.My new one was in the room for 5 min. & walked out & said i’ll see you in 6 months.Well i’ve had COPD for 3 years & all i learned was on the INSPIRE site.Also i have an excessive amount of saliva in my mouth along with the stuffy nose Sometimes the saliva is so thick that i can barely swallow.So i decided to go to an E.N.T. DOC. He said i had LARYNGOPHARENGEAL REFLUX & put me on GLYCOPYROLATE (ROBINUL) to the tune of $160.00 with ins. Did not help . Took it for 2 months. Any clues or help for me?

  • Radar6Henry
    2 years ago

    Thank you for welcoming me into the COPD.NET community & Treating me so nice as i don’t get it rom my DOCS. My Hubby is my great caregiver. I will be going back one more time (just if any thing to get my meds) As far as the saliva goes i have a dental appt. next week to see what he has to say. He is about the only one i trust. Thank you again for being so great to me……Carol

  • Casey Hribar moderator
    2 years ago

    Hi Radar6Henry! Welcome to our community! We’re glad to have you here! I’m also glad to hear you enjoyed this article. I’m so sorry for all you’ve been going through with your doctors. How frustrating! It’s upsetting to read that your physicians weren’t being as great of a resource as you had hoped! Ugh!

    As far as the saliva issue goes, I’m sorry to read that the medication from the ENT didn’t provide you with any relief. Hopefully, others in our community, or our experts like John or Leon, can chime in on why this may be and/or how to manage it. If it becomes a problem to the point of obstructing your breathing, we would certainly recommend alerting a provider immediately, or even going to your local emergency room.

    Please keep us posted on your journey! Do you have any plans to try to seek out another doctor? Or are you just going to go back to this new one in 6 months? Sending positive thoughts your way! -Casey, COPD.net Team

  • KevinDavitt
    2 years ago

    I get the runny nose but, sometimes what is more irritable is the “dry nostrils) I get from the oxygen. Which is why I avoid antihistamines as well. Have a good aloe/gel/spray which helps the dryness.
    Haven’t found a fix for the runny nose though.

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    2 years ago

    Hi Kevin and thanks for your comment. It sounds like you’ve found some relief using the aloe/gel/spray. You also may want to inquire of your physician and equipment supplier if a simple humidification device, used in conjunction with the oxygen, might be beneficial (and more comfortable) for you.
    In view of your concerns with your runny nose, I thought you might find it helpful to look over this comprehensive article on that subject: https://copd.net/living/stuffy-noses/.
    All the best,
    Leon (site moderator)

  • John Bottrell, RRT moderator author
    2 years ago

    Dry nostrils is a common problem with nasal cannula oxygen. A solution is to add a bubbler humidifier to your oxygen system. I think all you have to do is talk to the people who provide your oxygen equipment if you haven’t already.

  • buckybuck
    2 years ago

    I may be missing something, but I don’t see where any of this addresses my problem. I get a runny nose..I mean, really runny nose whenever I exert. It’s a constant need to blow my nose. There is some sneezing too, but mostly it’s just runny. I figure it’s just a reaction to exertion, but I’m not sure why. Can you explain?

  • John Bottrell, RRT moderator author
    2 years ago

    That’s a good question. Sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly why a person gets a runny nose. This might be a good question to run by your doctor.

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