Rhinitis and Nasal Obstruction

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Persistent Rhinitis written for patients

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Rhinitis is a term implying inflammation of the nasal mucosa. There is generalised swelling of the mucosa, increased volume and viscosity of nasal secretions and impairment of normal ciliary function.

Rhinitis is the most common cause of nasal obstruction but other less common conditions should be borne in mind when considering the diagnosis.

This is an overarching record summarising the conditions one should consider when confronted with a patient suffering from nasal obstruction. For more detailed information, see separate articles Allergic Rhinitis, Non-allergic Rhinitis, Nasal Polyps and Rhinosinusitis.

Rhinitis is a common condition and is likely to become more common with the ageing of the population. The prevalence varies according to the cause. One American study found that the prevalence of non-allergic rhinitis is greater in females and that the incidence of diagnosis increases with age. Greater than 60% of rhinitis patients over the age of 50 suffer from a non-allergic aetiology.[1]

The causes of nasal obstruction are:

  • Infective rhinitis: acute rhinitis is often infective in origin.
    • Viral rhinitis is one of the most frequent causes of nasal obstruction. Rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza and influenza viruses and adenoviruses are among the viruses most commonly identified.[2]
    • Bacterial rhinitis may begin spontaneously or as a sequel to viral rhinitis. It causes a mucopurulent nasal discharge. Bacteria most often implicated are Streptococcus pneumoniae, group A beta-haemolytic streptococci and Haemophilus influenzae.
    • Fungal rhinitis is most often found (but rarely) in immunocompromised patients. Candida spp., Aspergillus spp., Cryptococcus spp. and fungi of the class Zygomycetes (also previously called Phycomycetes) are most often implicated.
    • Infection by Nocardia spp. can also cause rhinitis in immunocompromised patients.
  • Allergic rhinitis.
  • Non-allergic rhinitis.
  • Foreign bodies in the nose:
    • These are most commonly seen in patients aged 6 months to 5 years.
    • There is persistent unilateral nasal obstruction and discharge, which may be bloody and accompanied by an offensive odour.
    • Serous otitis media on the same side often accompanies the nasal obstruction when the foreign material has been present for any length of time.
    • Nasal radiography may be required.
  • Nasal septum abnormalities:
    • Nasal septal deviation (congenital or acquired), haematoma (trauma) or perforation (eg trauma, nose picking, cocaine abuse).
  • Occlusion of the nasal valve:
    • The valve is at the narrowest part of the nose and is the apex where the septum and the upper lateral cartilage meet.
    • Causes of occlusion include septal deviation, ageing and nasal valve scarring after nasal surgery.[3]
  • Turbinate hypertrophy:
    • This may be idiopathic or caused by long-standing allergic rhinitis (seasonal and perennial), inflammation (eg rhinitis caused by the common cold) and long-term use of over-the-counter (OTC) vasoconstrictive nasal sprays.
    • The enlarged turbinates lose their ability to expand and shrink and therefore result in nasal obstruction.
    • Patients with this condition often present with complaints of continuous nasal obstruction unrelieved by nose drops, antihistamines, or allergic desensitisation.
    • Examination with a nasal speculum reveals enlargement of the inferior turbinate.
    • Treatment consists of alleviating symptoms with a steroid nasal spray and antihistamines for allergies, discontinuing habitual use of OTC vasoconstrictive nasal sprays and surgical procedures to shrink the turbinates.
  • Adenoid hypertrophy:
    • This is more common in children than it is in adults.
    • it occurs when excessive adenoid tissue blocks the nasopharynx and results in snoring, nasal obstruction, postnasal drainage and infections.
    • In children, the condition can be expected to regress over time.
    • Adenoidectomy may be required for significant functional impairment (hearing and speech).
  • Nasal polyps.
  • Rhinosinusitis.
  • Neoplasm - for example, inverted papilloma, sarcoma, lymphoma, juvenile nasopharyngeal angiofibroma and squamous cell carcinoma.
    • The possibility is suggested by unilateral epistaxis.
    • Inverted papilloma, although histologically benign, is locally invasive and may produce bone erosion.
    • Other neoplastic lesions that produce nasal obstruction include sarcoma, lymphoma and juvenile nasopharyngeal angiofibroma. Primary malignant tumours in the nasal cavity, which are relatively rare, are unilateral and are generally squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Choanal atresia - see separate article Congenital Nasal Problems.
  • Symptoms vary according to the aetiology but can include itching, sneezing, nasal obstruction, purulent, bloody or clear discharge and impairment of smell.[4]
  • Chronic stuffy nose can impair normal breathing, force patients to breathe through the mouth, or cause a persistent cough, headaches and a feeling of fullness in the face.
  • Simple tasks such as eating, drinking and speaking may become difficult and uncomfortable.
  • Newborn infants must breathe through the nose and so nasal congestion may cause severe difficulties, especially when feeding.
  • Prolonged nasal congestion in older children can interfere with hearing and speech development.
  • Significant congestion may also cause snoring and episodes of sleep apnoea.

Investigations are not usually required but may include:

  • FBC.
  • Allergy tests.
  • X-rays: adenoid, sinus.
  • CT scan.
  • Nasopharyngoscopy.
  • Nasal manometry (a method of measuring nasal airflow during respiration) may be helpful in patients complaining of persisting nasal obstruction after septoplasty[5]

Management is dealt with in the separate individual articles.

Further reading & references

  1. Pinto JM, Jeswani S; Rhinitis in the geriatric population. Allergy Asthma Clin Immunol. 2010 May 13;6(1):10.
  2. Common cold, Clinical Knowledge Summaries (2007)
  3. Núñez-Fernández, D et al; Núñez-Fernández, D et al; Rhinoplasty, Internal Valve Stenosis, Medscape, Jan 2010
  4. Rhinitis, Merck Manuals (2008)
  5. Tompos T, Garai T, Zemplen B, et al; Sensation of nasal patency compared to rhinomanometric results after septoplasty. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2010 Dec;267(12):1887-91. Epub 2010 Jun 11.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Laurence Knott
Current Version:
Document ID:
13607 (v1)
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