Postnasal Drip: Symptoms, Treatments, and Causes
This article will provide an overview of postnasal drip, including possible causes, how long it lasts, and treatment options. It will also discuss whether postnasal drip is a symptom of COVID-19.
Postnasal drip occurs when too much mucus collects in the area behind the nose or in the upper throat. This excess amount causes mucus to drip into the throat and produce noticeable symptoms.
Postnasal drip is one of the primary causes of chronic cough. If you have a cough that produces mucus, the mucus can be clear and watery or thick with a green, yellow, or white color.
Postnasal drip can also create the sensation of a “tickle” or itch in the throat that won’t go away. In people with asthma, postnasal drip can make it difficult to breathe.
Postnasal drip is not life threatening and typically goes away on its own or with over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
A runny nose is when excess mucus behind the nose comes through the nostrils. Postnasal drip is when extra mucus goes down the throat.
Contact your doctor or perform a home test for COVID-19 if you experience postnasal drip with additional symptoms such as:
- new loss of smell or taste
- sore throat
- fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC)
- shortness of breath
- body aches
Postnasal drip may accompany other symptoms, depending on the underlying cause.
Respiratory symptoms that may occur along with postnasal drip
Postnasal drip may accompany other symptoms affecting the respiratory system, including:
- persistent cough
- episodes of coughing up clear, yellow, light brown, or green mucus
- hoarse voice
- pus or white patches covering tonsils or throat
- runny nose
- episodes of sneezing
- throat clearing
Other symptoms that may occur along with postnasal drip
Postnasal drip may accompany symptoms related to other body systems. Such symptoms include:
- body aches
- enlarged lymph nodes in the throat
- facial or sinus pain
- fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC)
How long does postnasal drip last?
Depending on the cause, postnasal drip can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Contact your doctor or other healthcare professional if your postnasal drip does not improve with time or with OTC medications. Getting an accurate diagnosis for what causes your postnasal drip can help you find effective treatment.
When deciding how to get rid of postnasal drip, doctors first have to determine the cause. A complete exam by an ear, nose, and throat doctor is helpful in getting an accurate diagnosis.
Medicines for postnasal drip
Doctors may recommend medicines to treat postnasal drip, including:
- antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin) or cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- decongestants, such as pseudoepinephrine (Sudafed)
- mucus-thinning medicines, such as guaifenesin (Mucinex)
- OTC nasal sprays, such as cromolyn sodium (NasalCrom) or fluticasone (Flonase)
- prescription nasal sprays, such as ipratropium (Atrovent)
- prescription antibiotics, to treat bacterial infections
Home care for postnasal drip
You can also take steps at home to clear excess mucus and relieve postnasal drip. These include:
- rinsing with saline to irrigate your nose
- using humidifiers to moisturize the air
- inhaling steam from a hot shower or bowl of hot water
- drinking plenty of fluids to help your body clear mucus
- buying a vacuum with a high efficiency particulate air filter for carpets, rugs, and upholstered furniture or removing carpets and rugs from your home
- closing windows during allergy season and running the furnace fan to filter the air
- keeping pets out of bedrooms or only having outside pets
- preventing mold by using a dehumidifier and exhaust fans
- using allergen-proof covers on mattresses and pillows
- washing bedding at least once a week in hot water and drying on the hottest setting
Postnasal drip often resolves on its own.
However, if your postnasal drip does not go away after a few weeks, or if you develop additional or worsening symptoms, contact your doctor or other healthcare professional. This could indicate a more serious underlying condition.
Get prompt medical care for postnasal drip that occurs with:
- foul smelling discharge
- fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC)
- difficulty breathing
- nonhealing sore in your nose
- loose or painful upper teeth
- persistent sore throat and mucus-producing cough
- white patches or redness on your tongue or mouth
- sensation of something stuck in your throat that will not go away
A variety of conditions can cause postnasal drip. The symptom can also develop as a side effect of certain medications or due to environmental factors.
Common causes of postnasal drip
Excess mucus may collect behind the nose due to conditions including:
- sinus infection
- blood pressure medicines
- oral contraceptives
- obstruction in the nasal passages, such as nasal polyps
- deviated septum
Other causes of postnasal drip
Other factors that increase thin, clear mucus also cause postnasal drip. These include:
- cold temperatures
- spicy foods
- dry air
- chemical fumes and other irritants
Complications from postnasal drip are relatively minor and depend on the cause. However, left untreated, postnasal drip can lead to serious complications.
In the rare event that postnasal drip results from nasopharyngeal cancers, complications related to spread of the cancer might develop.
Once your doctor diagnoses the underlying cause, following the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you will help reduce the risk of potential complications, including:
- bad breath
- chronic nasal congestion
- difficulty breathing, sleeping, and swallowing
- ear or sinus infection
- spread of cancer
These are some other questions people often ask about postnasal drip. Nicole Aaronson, M.D., MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP, reviewed the answers.
Why do I have postnasal drip every day?
If you have allergies to certain triggers and you have exposure to those triggers on a daily basis, you may experience postnasal drip every day. Talk with your doctor about what allergens may be causing your symptoms. They can also determine if you have a more serious underlying condition causing your postnasal drip.
What foods make postnasal drip worse?
Spicy foods — including chili peppers, horseradish, hot sauce, and mustard — cause an increase in mucus production that leads to postnasal drip. Doctors also recommend avoiding caffeine, which can cause dehydration and prevent the body from clearing out mucus.
Can you have postnasal drip without being sick?
Yes. Exposure to certain environmental triggers, such as cold temperatures or chemical fumes, can cause postnasal drip. Your symptoms may go away once you are away from the environment that triggered them.
Postnasal drip occurs as a result of excess mucus that builds up behind the nose or in the upper throat. Several conditions and environmental factors can cause postnasal drip.
Postnasal drip is a primary cause of chronic cough. It typically goes away on its own or with OTC treatments and home care. Talk with your doctor or other healthcare professional if your postnasal drip persists or you develop new or worsening symptoms.