Nasal decongestants

Nasal decongestants

A woman using a nasal spray

Nasal decongestants are available as nasal drops and nasal sprays.
Image: Ken Hurst / Shutterstock.com

What causes a blocked nose (nasal congestion)?

Most people think that a blocked or stuffy nose (nasal congestion) is caused by thick mucus when you have a cold or flu, but this is not so. Nasal congestion happens when the blood vessels in the mucous membranes lining the nose become swollen, affecting breathing.

For most people, a blocked nose is simply an annoyance, but for others, nasal congestion can affect their ears, their hearing and in severe cases, their sleep.

In young babies who are being breast-fed or bottle-fed, nasal congestion can affect feeding, because babies need to breathe through their nose while they feed.

What is a nasal decongestant?

Nasal decongestants are medicines that can help relieve a blocked nose. Nasal decongestants help relieve nasal congestion by narrowing (constricting) the blood vessels and reducing blood flow and swelling, allowing you to breathe more easily.

Advice about cough and cold medicines for children has changed from 15 August 2012.

  • Medicated nasal decongestants must not be used in babies younger than 6 months, as rebound congestion may cause breathing difficulty.
  • Decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, oxymetazoline or xylometazoline should not be given to children younger than 6 years.
  • Ask a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner for advice before giving decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, phenylephedrine , oxymetazoline or xylometazoline to children aged 6 to 11 years.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice before using a nasal decongestant, to make sure that it is safe for you or your child. Always read the label on your medicine or the consumer medicine information (CMI).

Nasal decongestants are available in different forms:

  • Tablets (e.g. pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine). Brand names include: Sudafed Sinus and Nasal Decongestant
  • Nasal sprays (e.g. phenylephrine, oxymetazoline, tramazoline, xylometazoline). Brand names include: Vicks Sinex
  • Nasal drops (e.g. ephedrine, oxymetazoline, xylometazoline). Brand names include: Otrivin Nasal Drops.

Tell your doctor about all the medicines you are taking

It is important that you tell your health professional about all the medicines you or anyone in your care is taking — including prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (‘herbal’ or ‘natural’ medicines and vitamin and mineral supplements). This is because all medicines, including herbal and natural medicines, can cause side effects and may interact with other medicines.

Who can’t use nasal decongestants?

  • Decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, oxymetazoline or xylometazoline must not be used in children younger than 6 years. Use salt water (saline) nasal sprays or drops instead of a nasal decongestant for children.
  • Ask a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner for advice before giving decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, oxymetazoline or xylometazoline to children aged 6 to 11 years.
  • Nasal decongestants are unlikely to be effective for children under 12 years, and can cause serious side effects in children (e.g. can affect the nervous system). Use salt water (saline) nasal sprays or drops instead of a nasal decongestant for children.
  • They are not effective for treating a middle ear infection (otitis media).
  • They may not be safe to use if you have certain health conditions (e.g. high blood pressure or heart problems).

Phone for medicines information

Call NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) to get information about your prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and mineral supplements) from a pharmacist. Your call will be answered by healthdirect Australia.

What are the side effects of decongestants?

Commonly occurring side effects (between 1 and 10 in 100 people have the side effect) include:

  • burning and stinging in the nose
  • increased mucus production
  • rebound congestion if used for more than 4 or 5 days (see below).

Rarely occurring side effects (fewer than 1 in 1000 people will have the side effect) include:

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • headache
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • insomnia.

Don’t use intranasal decongestant spray or drops for longer than 4 or 5 days.

Using a decongestant for longer than 5 days (or at higher than the recommended dose) can worsen your symptoms after you stop using the decongestant (this is ‘rebound congestion’). Your symptoms may take weeks to improve. To avoid rebound congestion, don’t use nasal decongestants for longer than 4 or 5 days, and only use the recommended dose.

If you need a decongestant for longer than 5 days, decongestant tablets containing pseudoephedrine can help to prevent rebound congestion.

Who can I ask about side effects?

If you’re concerned that you or someone in your care may have had side effects related to a medicine, seek medical advice. People with questions about their medicines or seeking general information about side effects can also call the NPS Medicines Line on 1300 633 424 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm).To report possible side effects call the Adverse Medicine Events (AME) line on 1300 134 237 from anywhere in Australia (Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm AEST).

References

Latest information - nasal decongestants

Audience:
       

(Medicine)
10 May 2013 Read about why antibiotics are not prescribed for colds and learn about different medicines available to relieve cold symptoms, including paracetamol, decongestants & nasal sprays. Also useful tips to relieve cold symptoms.
(Medicine)
19 Feb 2013 Find out about the active ingredients in cough and cold medicines.
(Medicine)
05 Dec 2012 Learn about over-the-counter combination cough and cold medicines, including who shouldn’t take them, their side effects and effectiveness.
(Medicine)
21 Nov 2012 Nasal decongestants are medicines that can help to relieve a blocked nose (nasal congestion). Learn about the active ingredients & who can & can't use them
(Condition)
23 Aug 2012 Learn how to relieve the symptoms of respiratory tract infections (RTIs) such as colds or the flu, including the use paracetamol & ibuprofen in children & complimentary medicines.
(Medicine)
22 Jun 2012 Read about medicines and treatments for bronchiolitis (a respiratory tract infection), including how to relieve the symptoms and which children may need antibiotics.
(Medicine)
22 Jun 2012 Bronchitis usually gets better without any treatment but if your symptoms worsen, talk to your doctor. Read more about bronchitis treatments here.
(Medicine)
22 Jun 2012 Sinusitis is a respiratory tract infection (RTI) commonly caused by viruses, so antibiotics aren't normally prescribed. Learn more about sinusitis treatments here
(Medicine)
20 Apr 2012 Treatments & medicines (eg. paracetamol, ibuprofen & nasal sprays) for respiratory tract infections (RTIs) such as colds, the flu & pneumonia will depend on the cause of the infection & the severity.
(Medicine)
24 Feb 2012 The flu does not usually require treatment if you are normally healthy. If symptoms are severe or your risk of complication is high, antivirals may be prescribed. Learn more about treatments for flu here