On any given day, our bodies contain a ton of mucus without us even realizing it; mucus lines your mouth, nose, throat, sinuses, lungs, and digestive tracts at all times.
Mucus gets a bad rap of being gross and bothersome, but that’s because we only think about it when we have too much of it.
Mucus is responsible for several important jobs in our bodies, including protecting us from disease and germs by acting as a barrier, defending our bodies with antibodies and enzymes, and lubricating the sensitive hairs and cells that line our respiratory tract.
In fact, your nose alone produces about a quart of mucus each day.
Mucus is a part of our everyday lives, but if you’ve ever had too much of it running down the back of your throat, you know exactly how problematic it can be.
Millions of Americans wake up to feel extra mucus running down the back of their throats each year and find themselves frantically searching for the secrets of how to stop postnasal drip.
What Is Postnasal Drip?
If you’ve ever had that familiar, uncomfortable feeling of mucus running down the back of your throat, you’ve experienced the joys of postnasal drip.
Postnasal drip occurs when your sinuses make too much mucus and can’t contain it, so the mucus runs along the back of your throat.
Over time, postnasal drip can cause a chronic cough called upper airway cough syndrome (UACS).
To be clear, mucus is always running down the backs of our throats, even when we’re not sick. Under normal circumstances, mucus mixes with saliva, helping to thin it and allow it to drip down the back of the throat, where it is then swallowed.
Postnasal drip becomes a problem when the body produces more mucus than normal or your mucus is thicker than normal.
What Causes Postnasal Drip?
Because postnasal drip is really just an overproduction of mucus that runs down your throat, it has many causes.
Postnasal drip has both acute causes and chronic causes, meaning it can be experienced only rarely or on a regular basis.
For people who experience postnasal drip on a regular basis, the most likely causes are allergies or a deviated septum.
- Allergies: Chronic postnasal drip is most commonly caused by allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever. When our bodies become overly sensitive to something in the environment that causes other people no problems, such as dust, pet dander, or pollen, we develop allergic rhinitis. Each time our bodies encounter the allergen (the substance triggering the response), our immune system begins to attack an otherwise harmless substance, causing an allergy attack. Allergy attacks occur when your body begins to release inflammatory mediators, including histamines, which then bind to receptors on other cells in your body. As the histamines bind to the receptors, you begin to experience allergy symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, itchy/watery eyes, itchy nose or sore throat, nasal congestion, and sinus pressure. The types of allergies that trigger allergic rhinitis and cause postnasal drip are triggered by three main types of allergens: outdoor allergens, indoor allergens, and other irritants. Outdoor allergens include pollen from grass, trees, weeds, or flowers, while indoor allergens include pet hair or dander, dust mites, and mold. Other irritants that cause allergic rhinitis include smoke, perfume, and vehicle exhaust. Some people experience allergic rhinitis only during certain times of the year; when experienced seasonally, allergic rhinitis is usually caused by sensitivity to airborne mold spores or different types of pollen. Other people may have allergic rhinitis year-round; when experienced perennially, allergic rhinitis is generally caused by pet hair or dander, dust mites, cockroaches, or mold. Some people experience both perennial and seasonal allergic rhinitis, with symptoms increasing during certain times of the year due to reactions to multiple allergens.
- Deviated Septum: People who have a deviated septum have an internal deformity inside their nose that causes your septum, or the thin piece of cartilage between your nostrils, to lean to one side. When this happens, either due to a congenital condition or an injury, such as a broken nose, one side of the nasal passageway is smaller than the other. The smaller side may not experience proper mucus drainage, thereby causing postnasal drip. Other structural problems with the nose that affect the sinuses can also cause postnasal drip.
- Acute causes of postnasal drip include:
- Cold temperatures
- Viral infections such as the cold or flu
- Sinus infections or sinusitis
- Object stuck in the nose
- Changes in the weather
- Dry air
- Spicy foods
- Certain medications, such as some blood pressure medications and birth control prescriptions
- Fumes emanating from certain perfumes, cleaning products, smoke, chemicals, etc.
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Sometimes, what we think is postnasal drip is actually a buildup of liquids in the throat caused by something else entirely. In these cases, the problem is not that our bodies are producing too much mucus; rather, the body is unable to clear the normal amount of mucus away. This issue can occur as a result of age, a blockage, or conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
What Are the Symptoms of Postnasal Drip?
If you’ve ever experienced postnasal drip before (and who hasn’t?), you’ll remember that all-too-familiar feeling of constantly wanting to clear your throat.
Persistent coughs that won’t go away are often caused by postnasal drip. When postnasal drip triggers a cough, it is likely to get worse at night.
Postnasal drip may also result in a sore, scratchy throat and a hoarse voice due to the accumulation of mucus. Excess mucus can also cause an ear infection if the mucus backs up into your Eustachian tube; this passageway connects your throat to your middle ear.
Clogged sinus passages can result in a sinus infection.
How to Stop Postnasal Drip?
The treatment you’ll need to stop postnasal drip will depend on the condition that is causing it.
Common treatments of postnasal drip and the causes relieved by each treatment are listed below.
- Antibiotics: If your postnasal drip is caused by a bacterial sinus infection, antibiotics such as doxycycline hyclate may be the best choice to treat it. While we often use the color of our (normally clear) mucus as an indicator of an infection, green or yellow mucus is not proof of a bacterial infection. Antibiotics should only be taken when prescribed by a doctor, as taking them for a condition not caused by bacteria can cause your body to become resistant to the drug, making it less effective when you actually need it.
- Oral antihistamines and decongestants: Postnasal drip originating from sinusitis or viral infections, such as a cold or the flu, can be treated with antihistamines and decongestants. These treatments may also be effective for postnasal drip caused by allergies. When choosing an antihistamine or decongestant to treat your postnasal drip, stay away from the first-generation (older) antihistamines like Benadryl. These medications dry out your mucus quickly but may make it worse over time by causing it to thicken. Newer antihistamines like Claritin, Zyrtec, and Allegra are more effective at treating postnasal drip without the sedative effect of first-generation antihistamines. Some people may also use Mucinex to help loosen and thin the mucus caused by postnasal drip.
- Nasal steroid sprays: While it might seem counterproductive to treat a cough with a nasal spray, studies have shown that nasal steroid sprays are more effective at treating cough due to post-nasal drip than oral antihistamines. Intranasal steroid sprays such as Flonase and Nasonex are popular choices that have fewer side effects than older medications like Nasacort and Rhinocort.
Are There Any Ways to Stop Postnasal Drip Without Medication?
People have been treating postnasal drip naturally for years, so if you’re trying to avoid taking medication, you have plenty of options. Home remedies for postnasal drip include:
- Saline nasal sprays and irrigation: Saline nasal sprays are available over the counter and can help flush out excess mucus from your nasal passages. Irrigating systems, like a neti pot, help to flush out mucus as well as some of the irritants that may be causing your postnasal drip, including bacteria, allergens, and other irritants.
- Humidifier or vaporizer: Using a humidifier or vaporizer increases the moisture content in the air, which can help to slow the production of excess mucus, which is sometimes caused by very dry air, especially in the winter. Using a humidifier or vaporizer in your bedroom at night close to where you sleep is especially effective since postnasal drip symptoms often get worse overnight.
- Hot soup or liquids: If your mom has ever given you chicken soup to help you feel better from a cold, you know that hot soup or liquids can help people with postnasal drip feel better temporarily. Hot liquids help relieve symptoms because the steam helps open up your nasal passages and throat and thins out mucus. Dehydration is a common symptom of postnasal drip as well, so drinking hot soup or liquids can help you feel better by preventing dehydration.
- Hot shower: For the same reasons that hot soup or liquids provide temporary relief, hot showers can also help with postnasal drip by opening up the nasal passages and thinning out mucus.
When Should You See a Doctor for Postnasal Drip?
While postnasal drip usually doesn’t require a trip to your doctor’s office, there are some situations where it is important to see your medical professional.
If you have tried taking over the counter medications and used home treatments for more than ten days without experiencing a reduction in symptoms, you should see a doctor.
Additionally, if you notice that the mucus has a strong odor, this may be a sign of a bacterial infection that requires treatment with antibiotics. Remember, yellow or green mucus does not necessarily indicate a bacterial infection, but strong-smelling mucus does. If you have a fever or begin wheezing, you should also contact your doctor, as these may be other signs of a bacterial infection.
If you believe you may have a deviated septum due to injury or breathing issues since birth, surgery can help. A septoplasty helps align the septum and improves airflow and drainage for people with deviated septums.
If you experience GERD or regular acid reflux or believe you may have a blockage that is causing a feeling similar to postnasal drip, a trip to your primary care physician might be necessary to check for these issues. GERD and acid reflux can often be treated easily by over the counter or prescription medications that alleviate your symptoms entirely.
How Do You Prevent Postnasal Drip?
People who suffer from postnasal drip on a regular basis can help prevent symptoms by incorporating a few small changes into their daily routines. Some tips to prevent postnasal drip include:
- Sleep with your head elevated: Sleeping with the head of your bed elevated 30 to 45 degrees can help promote proper drainage and minimize your symptoms, especially since symptoms often get worse at night. If you do not have a convenient way to prop up your mattress, it is possible to purchase a wedge pillow online that will produce the same effect.
- Staying hydrated: Staying hydrated is one of the best ways to keep your mucus thin and manageable. When we don’t take in enough water, our bodies naturally produce thicker mucus. Staying hydrated keeps the mucus thin while also keeping your nasal passages moistened, which helps to reduce discomfort.
- Address your allergies: If you know that you suffer from seasonal or perennial allergic rhinitis, try talking to your doctor about using an over the counter allergy treatment, like Claritin or Flonase, on a daily basis to reduce your symptoms. Other ways that allergy sufferers can reduce their symptoms include:
- Dusting and vacuuming regularly and generally keeping a tidy home
- Washing all sheets, pillowcases, and mattress covers regularly (even weekly) in hot water
- Covering all mattresses and pillowcases with covers that are dust mite proof, since dust mites are a common cause of perennial allergies
- Using HEPA air filters in your home to remove fine particles that may be causing an allergic reaction from the air
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