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Nasal discharge

Alternative names

Runny nose; Postnasal drip; Rhinorrhea


Nasal discharge is any mucus-like material that comes out of the nose.


Nasal discharges are common, but rarely serious. They can include drainage from inflamed or infected sinuses, in which case it may be thick or discolored.

Problems from the runny nose are the result of excess mucus production. The mucus may run down the back of your throat (postnasal drip) or cause a cough that is usually worse at night. A sore throat may also result from excessive mucus drainage.

The mucus drip may plug up the tube between the nose and the ear, causing an ear infection and pain. The mucus drip may also plug the sinus passages, causing sinus infection and pain.

Common Causes

  • common cold or the flu (nasal secretions contain antibodies that act against viruses and carry them out of the body)
  • Hay fever (nasal secretions are usually clear and very thin)
  • Sinusitis (the nasal secretions may be thick and discolored yellow, brown, or green)
  • Head injury
  • Bacterial infections
  • Small objects in the nostril (especially in children)
  • Nasal sprays or drops containing vasoconstrictors may cause rebound rhinorrhea, if used longer than 3 consecutive days

Home Care

Keep the mucus thin (rather than thick and sticky). This helps prevent complications, such as ear and sinus infections, and plugging of your nasal passages. To thin the mucus:

  • Use saline nasal sprays.
  • Drink extra fluids also helps to thin nasal secretions.
  • Increase the humidity in the air with a vaporizer or humidifier to help thin or liquefy the mucus.

Antihistamines may reduce the amount of mucus. Be careful, because some antihistamines make people drowsy. Don't use over-the-counter nasal sprays more frequently than 3 days on and 3 days off, unless ordered by the doctor.


Many people think that a green or yellow nasal discharge means a bacterial infection, which requires antibiotics. This is NOT true. Colds will often begin with a clear nasal discharge, but after several days it usually turns creamy, yellow, or green for a time. Colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics will not help. A green or nasal discharge is not a sign you need antibiotics.

Call your health care provider if

  • A nasal discharge follows a head injury .
  • The drainage is foul smelling, one-sided, or a color other than white or yellow.
  • Symptoms persist beyond 3 weeks.
  • If you have a fever along with nasal discharge.

Your doctor may perform a physical examination , including an examination of the ears, nose, and throat.

Your doctor may ask medical history questions, such as:
  • Is the discharge thin and watery or is it thick?
  • Is it bloody?
  • What color is it?
  • How long has the nasal discharge been present?
  • Is it present all the time?
  • What other symptoms are also present?
  • Is your nose stuffy or congested?
  • Do you have a cough or headache ?
  • Do you have a sore throat ?
  • Do you have a fever?

Diagnostic tests that may be performed for persistent problems include:

  • CT scan of the head
  • X-rays of the skull and sinus
For allergic rhinitis , antihistamines may be prescribed. Antibiotics may be prescribed for bacterial infections only.

Update Date: 2/3/2002

A.D.A.M. editorial. Previously reviewed by Poune Saberi, M.D., M.P.H., Department of Family Practice and Community Medicine, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network (2/3/2002).

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Last updated: Tue, 06 Jan 2009 00:20:03 GMT