beth israel deaconess medical center a harvard medical school teaching hospital

To find a doctor, call 800-667-5356 or click below:

Find a Doctor

Request an Appointment

left banner
right banner
Smaller Larger


Nasal Swelling, Sinus Pressure and Congestion Relief

Decongestant medications include prescription or over-the-counter products that relieve nasal swelling, sinus pressure, and congestion. They work by reducing blood flow to the nasal membranes to improve airflow, lessen breathing through the mouth, decrease pressure in the sinuses and head, and ease discomfort. They do not treat the cause of inflammation or relieve a runny nose, but they help open the airway. Side effects may include light-headedness and raised blood pressure and heart rate. Patients with high blood pressure or heart problems should consult a physician before using decongestants.

What types of decongestants are available?

Over-the-counter drugs (OTC) are medicines you can buy without a prescription from your doctor. The only OTC decongestants available in pill form are pseudoephedrine (two brand names: Contac Non-Drowsy, Sudafed) and phenylephrine (one brand name: Sudafed PE). In some states, you may have to talk to a pharmacist before buying medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, but you still will not need a prescription from your doctor.

Decongestant nose sprays and drops are also available over-the-counter. However, these products shouldn't be used for more than 3 days because your body can become dependent on them. This will cause your nose to feel even more stopped-up when you quit using them.

How do decongestants work?

Decongestants work by narrowing blood vessels in the lining of the nose. This reduces how much blood flows through the area so that swollen tissue inside the nose shrinks and air can pass through more easily.

What types of problems can decongestants help?

Decongestants can help relieve a stopped-up nose caused by a cold or the flu (influenza), sinusitis or allergies.

What are some common side effects of OTC decongestants?

Side effects aren't usually a problem for healthy adults who only use decongestants once in a while. Side effects can be a concern for people who have health problems or use decongestants for long periods of time.

Pseudoephedrine may make some people feel nervous or dizzy. It can cause palpitations (feeling like your heart is racing) or problems sleeping. It can also r aise blood pressure in some people.

Can OTC decongestants cause problems with other medicines I take?

Yes. Decongestants can interact with many other medicines you take. If you take any of the products listed below, talk to your doctor before taking a decongestant:

  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (also called MAOIs), are a type of prescription drug used to treat depression and other conditions. MAOIs include:
    • Isocarboxazid (brand name: Marplan)
    • Phenelzine (brand name: Nardil)
    • Selegiline (brand names: Eldepryl, Carbex)
    • Tranylcypromine (brand name: Parnate)
  • Insulin
  • Seizure disorder medicines
  • Diet pills
  • Asthma medicines
  • High blood pressure medicines

Often Combined with Antihistamines And/Or Pain Relievers

Decongestants are often combined with antihistamines and/or pain relievers. If you take one of these combination medicines, it's important to understand each of the active ingredients and the interactions they may have with other drugs you're taking.

Do Not Take Too Much Pseudoephedrine

Be sure not to take too much pseudoephedrine. Many OTC cold and allergy products and some prescription drugs contain pseudoephedrine. If you combine these drugs, you'll take much more pseudoephedrine than you intendDecongestants.

Contact Information

Allergy and Inflammation - Research
Department of Medicine
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Center for Life Science, 9th floor
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215