04 October 2017

Can you overuse your nasal spray?

If you can’t go to bed without your nasal spray within easy reach, you might have developed dependence.

Here's the scenario: A few seasons ago you suffered from congestion. You've been well for a long time, but can't seem to get rid of that stuffy nose.

Some nights you wake up in a panic as you try to find your bottle of nasal spray on your bedside table – and you don't understand why you still need it.

Could it be that you've developed an addiction, and is it serious?

A dependence on nasal spray is pretty real. Why else would there be a warning on the label that you shouldn’t use it for more than three to five days?

It’s an official condition

Nasal spray dependence is such a well-known problem that there's even a name for the term: rhinitis medicamentosa. This describes the adverse nasal congestion that develops after using nasal decongestants longer than the recommended period of time.

How does a nasal spray work?

Not all nasal sprays are the same. There are several nasal sprays available on the market that contain steroids, saline or antihistamine.

Some nasal sprays contain a drug group called vasoconstrictors, which include norepinephrine and pseudoephedrine. These ones get rid of a stuffy nose by shrinking the congested blood vessels in the area, thereby opening up your nasal passages.

Other nasal sprays may contain anti-inflammatory steroids to reduce swelling and mucus in the nose.

Steroid nasal sprays usually do not offer immediate relief and can take a couple of days to be fully effective.

The blood vessels only respond to the chemicals in nasal sprays for a few days. After that, the nasal spray no longer has any effect.

Call your doctor when:

  • You only suffer from nasal congestion with no other symptoms.
  • You get withdrawal symptoms such as headaches when you don’t use your nasal decongestant.
  • You need to use more decongestant to get relief.

How to break the dependence

  • Switch to a saline spray or use something like Vicks Vaporub or natural herbal remedies.
  • Go completely "cold turkey".
  • Discuss the matter with your doctor.
  • Try oral antihistamines to clear up nasal congestion.

Image credit: iStock 


Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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