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What are Decongestant Sprays?

By Debra Durkee
Updated May 17, 2024
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Nasal decongestant sprays are over the counter or prescription medications used for temporarily relieving nasal and sinus congestion. They typically come in small bottles with spray tips, and are administered directly into the blocked nostril. The spray can be used in one or both nostrils, but care should be taken not to get the medication into the nasal septum.

Causes of congestion can include the common cold or allergies, and nasal decongestant sprays can be effective in relieving the symptoms. Correctly administering the spray can also help relieve other ailments associated with congestion, such as watery eyes and itchy sinuses. It can also be helpful in relieving pressure built up in the sinus cavities that causes a sensation of plugged ears and headaches.

Generally, decongestant sprays are administered by placing the spray tip into one nostril, holding the other shut, and spraying the liquid while inhaling. When the medication comes in contact with the inside of the nasal passages, the swelling in the blood vessels decreases and airways are opened. Nasal decongestant sprays offer only a temporary solution, and should not be used for longer than the directions indicate. The temptation to overdose on nasal decongestant spray can be high, as it is typically only effective for about 30 minutes.

Continued use can damage those same blood vessels, and when use is finally stopped, the swelling can return, this time unrelated to illness but as a side effect of the medication. This relapse is called rhinitis medicamentosa, and can result in damage to the lining of the nose and increased susceptibility to infections. Chemicals that can be found in decongestant sprays include phenylephrine and maphazoline, which act directly on the blood vessels in the nose; in proper dosing amounts, they are not generally dangerous, but many overmedicate with them.

Proper care of the applicator is crucial, as it is inserted into the nostril for administration. Regularly exposed to the germs and bacteria that cause illness in the first place, the tip of the applicator should be rinsed to help ensure that there is no re-infection from a contaminated applicator. Only one person in a household should use the applicator, as colds can easily be passed from one to another.

Some individuals can have severe allergic reactions to some of the chemicals contained in nasal decongestant sprays; as there are a variety of formulas, checking ingredients can be a vital step. Some users can also suffer from redness, itching, or swelling. It is generally not recommended to administer nasal sprays to children.

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