As we highlighted in our on-air, nasal congestion is a very common, frustrating and annoying symptom of the common cold which has a significant impact on our ability to function. Our thanks to the virologist, Dr. Rob Lambkin-Williams for his contribution to our radio report.
Nasal Congestion Most people assume that the feeling of nasal congestion is all about being bunged up, full of mucus, but in fact, it is also the swelling of the blood vessels that causes the discomfort, increased sinus pressure and difficulty breathing. As well as the nasal cavities, congestion can interfere with the ears, hearing, and speech. Significant congestion may interfere with sleep, cause snoring and can be associated with sleep apnoea; when a person lacks oxygen during sleep and therefore has a disturbed night, constantly waking up as the body tries to get enough oxygen. Nasal congestion can also cause mild facial and head pain, and a significant degree of discomfort. The build-up of mucus and the subsequent increase in sinus pressure can make breathing difficult as if a heavy weight was on a person’s chest or their lungs had “shrunk”. This can have a big effect on a person’s everyday life; whether making it more difficult to perform day to day activities, such as climbing a flight of stairs, or more vigorous activities such as going to the gym, or going for a run.
What is Mucus? Mucus is a watery substance packed with an array of chemical elements mucins, salts and water and is produced by the membranes of sinus cavities of which there are four within the bones around our cheeks, eyebrows, and nose. Importantly it serves as part of the body's defence mechanism against unwanted invaders, such as dust particles, irritants, viruses, and bacteria. In these sinus cavities mucus traps and filters particles. Tiny hair-like structures called cilia line the cavities, these beat in a uniformed manner and are involved in the process of moving excess mucus towards the back of the throat where it goes unnoticed into the stomach. Unknown to many, the amount of mucus we normally produce every day exceeds half a litre.
The sinus cavities must constantly have air and mucus moving freely, this protects the respiratory tract, and thus a person’s ability to breath. If air and mucus do not flow freely and stagnate, an environment is quickly created in which potentially harmful bacteria and viruses can multiply. When it is coloured, or produced in excessive amounts, it can be an indicator that there is a problem, for example, a bacterial infection such as a cold.
Ask your pharmacist. When it comes to self-limiting conditions like a cold we shouldn’t be bothering our GP but talking to our pharmacist - Alongside keeping warm and well hydrated, getting plenty of sleep and maintaining a healthy diet, symptomatic relief can be obtained using painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen; these can be even more effective when combined with decongestants. There are also home remedies such as inhaling steam that can help.
Word of caution - ensure that that you follow the dosing guidelines suggested by your pharmacist or published on the packaging of the medications you purchase so that you don't overdose.
And finally, remember colds and flu are easily spread so if you are suffering, keep your hands clean and ensure you cough only into tissues & dispose of them immediately.
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