Can’t Breathe Through Nose? Here Are Likely Reasons Why

The nose is responsible for air exchange and the sense of smell. It allows oxygen from the atmosphere into the lungs where air exchange occurs.

It cleans, warms and moisturizes the air we breathe in to make it safe before it reaches the lungs.  It is much larger than it looks from the outside and leads from the nostrils to the back of the throat.

the airway

In some cases, the nose may be unable to carry out these functions due to a blockage. A blocked nose is one of the commonest complaints in medicine and it affects people of all ages and races. In this article, we will discuss why breathing through your nose may be problematic and the causes of a blocked nose.

10 Reasons Why You May Have Problems Breathing Through Your Nose

1. Common Cold


The common cold is the most common cause of a blocked nose. Usually caused by viruses, it affects people of all ages and races. When disease-causing entities enter into the nasal cavity, they become trapped on the inner surface of the nose. This leads to an inflammation of that area causing a reduction in the width of the nostrils resulting in decreased airflow.

If you have a cold, you may have a fever alongside nasal fullness and a headache. It typically goes on its own, lasting between 5 and 10 days. They may last longer when infected by bacteria which fester in stagnant mucus, causing a brown or yellow colored mucus.


Practicing good hygiene helps prevent the spread of microbes that cause colds and infections. Avoid sharing close corners, utensils and food items with people who have a cold.

2. Allergies


When foreign entities breach the skin to enter the body, the immune system reacts by trying to curtail the spread of the invader. This is a normal reaction that is well-coordinated and causes minimal danger to the individual.

In some people, reactions to foreign entities from all around us in the environment cause an exaggerated response in the body. These entities, like perfumes, grains, fumes, dust, mold, pet dander, tobacco smoke, pollen, and some food items are called allergens. This is the basis of allergic reactions. Many people worldwide have allergies to a variety of things.

When in contact with these allergens, the body reacts by sending soldiers in the body (called antibodies) to the nose. These antibodies cause the release of a chemical in the body called histamine that leads to the production of excessive amounts of mucus in the nose which may cause the nose to become blocked.

Allergies cause sneezing, itchiness of the facial area, watering of the eyes and a blocked nose which may drip. Nasal congestion due to allergies typically lasts longer than ten days but is much better when the allergen is removed.

If you have nasal congestion due to allergies, make a conscious effort to avoid contact with the allergens. A good humidifier also helps. Using nasal saline sprays or over-the-counter antihistamines may also help quell a current allergic episode.

3. Sinusitis


Sinus inflammation (called sinusitis) is very common today. The sinuses are a hollow collection of air-filled cavities in the bones of the face, especially around the eyes, cheeks, forehead, and nose. They normally help drain mucus – which traps debris and helps prevent foreign bodies from moving into the body.

When infected, the sinuses are blocked and are filled with mucus and other secretions. Sinusitis is very similar to the common cold but is mostly caused by bacteria. It may, however, be caused by allergies or viruses too.

The symptoms also tend to be longer than a common cold. Some of such symptoms are –

  • Headaches in the frontal part of the head
  • Toothache/pain
  • Nasal congestion
  • Postnasal drip
  • Facial tenderness
  • Fever
  • Bad breath
  • Cough
  • Thick yellowish or greenish mucus

It is often diagnosed with history taking and a physical examination. Sometimes, imaging tests like a computed tomography scan (CT Scan) or X-rays are used to find the underlying cause of sinusitis, especially if it is recurrent.


CT scan

The microscopic examination of the nasal discharge and organism responsible may also be undertaken. People with a defective immune system, like HIV- positive individuals and people on cancer treatment are at a higher risk of developing frequent sinus infections.

Sinusitis often resolves in about ten days. Your doctor will prescribe nasal sprays or antibiotics if an infective cause is suspected. If after 10 days the sinusitis still persists, oral antibiotics may need to be used.

4. Foreign Object

This is particularly common in children. They may play with toys, seeds or beads and inadvertently stick them in their nose. This causes blockage but typically of one nostril. It may also cause snoring, bleeding and shortness of breath.

A foreign object stuck in the airway of a child is a pediatric emergency. If you suspect that your child has aspirated an object, please visit the emergency room immediately.

5. Shifted Septum

Contact sports

The nasal septum divides the nostrils into two. It is made of cartilage and may become shifted, causing a reduction in airflow. Typically, a shift in the position of the septum is caused by trauma.

This may result from a direct blow to the face as in boxing or a fall which causes a broken nose. In some people, the nasal septum is deformed at birth. Septal problems can be treated with medicines to reduce symptoms or surgery (called rhinoplasty) which is more lasting.

6. Turbinate Overgrowth

Turbinates are tissues in the nose responsible for moisturizing the air we breathe. Due to infections or allergies, they may increase in size at any period. When sufficiently large enough, they may cause a total blockage of the nose.  They also increase in size with colds and under the influence of some hormones.

In some people, the nasal cavity is very narrow which makes the turbinate seem bigger and causes a restriction in air-flow. The nose in these individuals is perpetually stuffed and surgery may be needed to circumvent the problem.

7. Nasal Polyp

nasal medicines

These are soft, painless masses inside the nose.  They may grow out of proportion as a result of the infection of the sinuses (called sinusitis) or due to allergies. They are a part of the normal lining of the nose and when large enough, may cause nasal blockage.

They also cause nasal bleeding, reduced sense of smell, and snoring. Unlike a cold, they need to be treated before they can go away. Your doctor will prescribe steroid medicines or a nasal spray for the treatment of a nasal polyp. Surgery is also offered if medicines do not help with symptoms.

8. Nasal Valve Problems

The nose has valves controlling the airflow and the movement of other particles like dust and debris. The internal and external valves are located in front of the nose.

When the valves are too narrow, they cause you discomfort and a feeling of nasal congestion or blockage. A weak or abnormally positioned valve also causes these symptoms.

9. Adenoids

In children, a majority of nasal blockages is caused by enlarged adenoids. These are located at the roof of the mouth and are similar to tonsils. Medical attention and possibly surgery is required to treat this.

10. Pregnancy

pregnancy can cause a blocked nose

In some women, pregnancy causes them to have a stuffed nose which may last between 3 and 6 months. It often starts in the second month of pregnancy and is called rhinitis of pregnancy. This is due to an increased number of blood vessels stuffing the nose.

It may be a minor inconvenience for some women or severe enough to warrant referral to a specialist. Nasal sprays are used to treat this condition which usually eases up and disappears after delivery.


A stuffed nose is problematic and makes life a little less easy. Your voice is altered, your nose drips, breathing is more difficult and is annoying. Non-prescription medicines that aid nasal decongestion can help resolve a large percentage of symptoms.

However, if symptoms are persistent or recur, you may need to see your doctor. If you have recurrent symptoms or your mucus is thick, yellow or brown, bloody or foul-smelling, you should see your doctor right away.

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Zubair Abdulahi, MBBS

Dr. Zubair Abdulahi is a licensed medical practitioner with a degree in medicine and surgery who is interested in using new media to influence health decisions by providing information on health queries. He has written for top publications in Nigeria like the Guardian. When he's not working as a doctor, he enjoys the game of football as well as sight-seeing and listening to classical music.
Zubair Abdulahi, MBBS