As soon as the temperature starts to drop even just a little, you know what comes next: a stuffy nose and the sniffles. But this year, some extra nasal congestion brings with it a bit more worry, as COVID-19 continues to circulate the US.
The facts: a stuffy nose—aka, "congestion or runny nose"— is classified as a symptom of the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it's not necessarily considered "the quintessential symptom," Neha Vyas, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health.
So how worried should you be if you start sniffling and sneezing a little more than usual right now? Here's what you need to know.
How common is a stuffy nose with COVID-19?
The CDC doesn't provide information on how many people suffer from common COVID-19 symptoms—but the World Health Organization has one report that does.
In February, near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO published a report analyzing 55,924 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China. That report found that just 4.8% of patients showed nasal congestion as a sign or symptom of a COVID-19 infection. That number is much lower than the percentages of patients who reported more common symptoms, like fever (87.9%), dry cough (67.7%), and fatigue (38.1%).
How can you know if your stuffy nose is a symptom of COVID-19?
Like many symptoms of coronavirus, stuffy nose is a non-specific symptom, which means it can be linked to a number of illnesses. That's especially true this time of year when influenza, allergies, and the common cold begin circulating, Dr. Vyas says.
That means the only true way to know if your stuffy nose is a sign of COVID-19 is to get tested—and that decision boils down to your symptoms, circumstances, and your doctor's opinion.
If you’ve been suffering from a stuffy nose for a few days, a good starting point is scheduling a telehealth appointment with your primary care doctor—unless, of course, you’re experiencing more severe symptoms like having difficulty breathing, which should prompt a visit to an emergency room or urgent care clinic.
Dr. Vyas says that if a patient comes to her complaining of a stuffy nose, the first thing she’s going to do is try to get a sense of the patient’s COVID-19 risk, plus their general health. “If someone tells me they have a stuffy nose and nothing else, I’ll find out their risk [for COVID-19], but I don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s COVID-19,” Dr. Vyas says. Instead, your doctor might start asking whether or not you suffer from allergies, or whether you usually get a cold this time of year.
Past that, your lifestyle comes into play. If you've been ignoring social distancing guidelines, going out without a mask on, and failing to wash your hands consistently, for example, a COVID-19 test could very well be the next step. “If you do have a stuffy nose and you haven’t been practicing social distancing, you have every right to be concerned,” Dr. Vyas says.
However, if you’ve been observing safety precautions recommended by experts—like wearing a mask every time you leave your house and staying six feet from others when out in public—your primary care doctor might not recommend a COVID-19 test right away.
How do you treat a stuffy nose from COVID-19?
Treating nasal congestion due to COVID-19 is similar to treating nasal congestion as a result of any illness—as long as you're not experiencing any severe symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain. If your symptoms are mild, you can try a few different techniques that help relieve sinus pressure from a stuffy nose, like steam from a humidifier, nasal irrigation via neti pots or nasal sprays, or a bit of decongestant (though that should be used sparingly and at the recommendation of a doctor).
And, as always, your best bet to stay safe from COVID-19 right now still comes down to washing your hands, keeping your mask on, and staying away from people you’re not quarantining with.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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