Decongestants for Sinusitis

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Decongestants for Sinusitis


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These products are available as nasal sprays, nose drops, tablets, and liquids.

In some provinces, medicines containing pseudoephedrine (such as Sudafed) are kept behind the pharmacist's counter or require a prescription. You may need to ask the pharmacist for it or have a prescription from your doctor to buy the medicine.

How It Works

Decongestants reduce swelling of the mucous membrane in the nose and sinuses associated with sinusitis by constricting blood vessels and reducing the blood supply to nasal mucous membranes. This reduces nasal congestion, stuffiness, and runny noses.

Unlike oral decongestants, nasal decongestants constrict blood vessels only in the nose and not in other parts of the body. So they rarely cause the side effects that oral decongestants do. Unfortunately, use of nasal decongestants is safe only for a short period of time, because their use can lead to further swelling of the sinus membranes as they wear off, creating more congestion, which in turn requires higher doses of medicine (called rebound congestion).

Why It Is Used

Decongestants are used to treat symptoms caused by nasal blockage and sinusitis. They may be used along with antibiotics and home treatment.

How Well It Works

Decongestants do not cure sinusitis, but they may reduce symptoms.1

Nasal sprays cannot reach the mucous membranes deeper in the nose and inside the sinuses. Oral decongestants may be needed to reduce swelling in these areas.

Side Effects

If a nasal decongestant spray is used more often, at higher doses, or for a longer time than is recommended, rebound congestion may occur.

Side effects of decongestants may include:

  • Reduced movement of mucus out of the nose (ciliostasis).
  • Decreased blood flow to the mucous membrane in the nose and sinuses, reducing the speed at which antibiotics get into the sinuses.
  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Dizziness.
  • Nervousness or irritability.
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia).

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

Decongestants may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems. Do not give cough and cold medicines to a child younger than 6 unless your child’s doctor has told you to. Before you use them, check the label. If you do use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and in some cases weight.

Nasal sprays containing decongestants should not be used for more than 3 days in a row. If used for longer periods, you may have rebound congestion.

Avoid decongestant medicines that contain antihistamines unless your doctor specifically recommends them.

Avoid taking too much of a decongestant because it can cause high blood pressure, nervousness, kidney failure, heart rhythm disturbances, strokes, and seizures. Commonly used decongestants have little effect on blood pressure when used as directed. Talk with your doctor first before using decongestants if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure.

Avoid taking two medicines that contain decongestants at the same time because of possible overdose. Many non-prescription preparations for other health problems, such as some diet pills, contain decongestants.

Talk to your doctor before using decongestants if you have problems with blood flow to the heart (ischemic heart disease), diabetes, or thyroid problems. Also, talk with your ophthalmologist before using decongestant medicines if you have glaucoma or other conditions that cause increased pressure inside the eye. Before prescribing a decongestant, your doctor will want to know whether you are taking tricyclic antidepressants or monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which are sometimes used to treat depression and migraine headaches.

Saline (saltwater) nasal sprays and washes may help clear up a stuffy nose. Both are available at pharmacies without a prescription. A humidifier may also help thick or dried mucus to drain.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.



  1. Shah AR, et al. (2008). Acute and chronic sinusitis. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 2nd ed., section 4, pp. 273–281. New York: McGraw-Hill.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Donald R. Mintz, MD - Otolaryngology
Last Revised September 30, 2010

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