On a daily basis, the glands in the linings of the nose, airways, and throat continuously produce mucus. These glands are also present in the linings of the stomach and intestinal tracts. The nose alone is known to produce about a quart of mucus each day. Mucus is a thick, wet substance that moistens these areas. This mucus then moistens and cleans the nasal membranes. It also helps humidify air, fights against infection, and traps and clears out any foreign particles mistakenly inhaled. This mucus is normally swallowed unknowingly, since it gets mixed with saliva and then drips back down the throat. The mucus is harmless and does not cause any issues, however, the feeling of it accumulating in the throat or its dripping from the back of the nose is called a post-nasal drip. This happens when the body produces more mucus than usual or, in some cases, gets thicker than normal and thus becomes noticeable.
1 What is post-nasal drip?
There are multiple causes that can trigger excess mucus, including:
- Allergies, which are also called an allergic post-nasal drip
- Sinusitis or an infection of the sinus that causes inflammation
- Any kind of object that becomes stuck in the throat (this is commonly found in small children)
- Effects of certain medications such as those for blood pressure or birth control drugs
- Change in weather or temperature
- Certain foods, for example, spicy foods
- Fumes emitted from chemicals, smoke, cleaning products, or any other irritants
- A crooked placement of the wall which separates the nostrils, called the deviated septum
- Certain other problems with the structure of the nose, which tend to affect the sinuses
In some cases, the problem is not the over-production of mucus, rather, the mucus is not getting cleared from the body. Swallowing this mucus can lead to a buildup of liquids in the throat, which can also feel similar to a post-nasal drip. Such problems tend to occur due to age, a medical condition called GERD, or blockages.
- Thin secretions: An increase in thin, clear secretions could be caused by colds, the flu, sudden change in temperature, bright lights, allergies, changes in hormones, or certain kinds of foods. Certain medications or any structural abnormalities, such as an irregular nasal septum, can also lead to an increase in thin secretions.
- Thick secretions: An increase in thick secretions is often seen in winter due to the dryness in homes or buildings. Thick secretions can also be caused by sinus infections, intake of dairy products, and allergies. If thin secretions suddenly change to green or yellow thick secretions, a bacterial infection could be the cause. In small children, thick secretions only from one side of the nose means something has been stuck in the nose, such as paper, a piece of a toy, etc. In such cases, one needs to visit the doctor immediately.
When an individual has a post-nasal drip, there is a constant urge to clear the throat. This can sometimes trigger cough, which may grow worse in the night. Post-nasal drip is one of the most common causes of cough and doesn’t go away quickly.
Collection of excess mucus can also lead to a sore or scratchy throat. It may also make one hoarse.
Excess mucus can cause a sinus infection as well, since the passages become clogged.
If the excess mucus goes up to the Eustachian tube, which connects the throat to the middle ear, it could lead to a painful ear infection.
Due to post-nasal drip, one often complains of a sore or irritated throat. There wouldn’t be any infection, but the tissues in the throat and tonsils tend to swell. This would then lead to discomfort or a feeling as if there was a lump in the throat. Mostly, such issues can be treated and resolved if timely action is taken. Treatment can be carried out first by conducting a detailed examination of the ear, nose, and throat, after which laboratory and endoscopic studies can be done. Based on the cause of the issue, the treatment will vary accordingly: if the cause is a bacterial infection, it can be cured with the help of antibiotics; if it’s an allergy, antihistamines or decongestants can also be useful; one can also be given immunotherapy either by shots or sublingual; if the cause is gastroesophageal reflux, it can be treated by elevating the head off the bed about six to eight inches. One should also avoid foods or any kind of beverage for at least three to four hours before bedtime, and completely eliminate the intake of alcohol and caffeine from the diet.
If an individual experiences swallowing problems, it may result in an accumulation of liquids or solids in the throat, which can further complicate the post-nasal drip. When the nerves and muscles in the food passage, mouth, and throat do not communicate properly, it can lead to overflow secretions which spill into the voice box and breathing passages, leading to sore throat, hoarseness, or coughing. There are several other problems that can lead to swallowing problems: as one ages, the swallowing muscles lose their strength and coordination, thus making it more difficult for even normal kinds of secretions to pass smoothly into the stomach; any kind of swelling or growths in the food passage can also lead to slow or inhibited movement of solids or liquids; gastroesophageal reflux is also a cause of swallowing problems.
Treatment for post-nasal drips varies from person to person, as it depends on the cause of the issue. There are certain antibiotics which can help clear out the bacteria causing the infection. However, if the mucus is green or yellow, it does not prove there is a bacterial infection. In some cases, due to colds, the mucus can turn yellow or green in color. This would then be due to viruses that do not respond to antibiotics and would need another course of treatment to be cleared.
If the post-nasal drip is caused by a sinus infection or sinusitis, antihistamines and decongestants can work on them. They are known to be effective along with steroids or nasal sprays, which are usually given if allergies are the cause. The over-the-counter antihistamines chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine may not work for post-nasal drip. There are certain new antihistamines, such as loratadine, cetirizine, fexofenadine, and levocetirizine, which can play a better role in treating post-nasal drip. These medicines are less likely to cause any side effects, such as drowsiness. However, it is good to first check with the doctor before taking any of these medicines, whose effects can range from dryness in the mouth to dizziness.
Another treatment would be to thin the accumulated mucus. If the mucus is thick, it becomes stickier, thus causing more issues and constant bothering. If the mucus is kept thin, it can prevent blockage in the ear and sinuses. A home method to thin out mucus is by increasing water intake.
There are other methods as well, apart from the ones mentioned above:
- Use a humidifier or turn on the vaporizer to increase the moisture in the air.
- Use medications such as guaifenesin or Mucinex.
- Use nasal sprays or irrigation, such as a neti pot, which helps flush out mucus, allergens, and bacteria.
5 Home remedies
Below are a few home remedies one can try to treat post-nasal drip:
- Salt water gargle: Gargling salt water is known to be one of the best and most effective home remedies. This is needed to ease the discomfort caused due to post-nasal drip. Salt water helps thin out the secretion so that it flushes out of the body smoothly. It also helps flush out other irritants from the nasal passage. This process involves adding around half a teaspoon of salt into one cup of warm water. Stir the mixture thoroughly until the salt dissolves. Gargle with this solution two to three times a day. You can also perform this until you find relief from the discomfort.
- Nasal irrigation: This is another method to clear out excess mucus as well as maintain nasal passage wellness and keep it free from irritants to prevent any chance of infection. The process for this is to add one fourth of a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of baking soda in a cup of warm water. Pour this solution into a neti pot. Stand near a sink and tilt your head to one side. Squirt the solution into one of the nostrils. Move your head back, forward, and side to side so the solution reaches the nasal cavities. Once this is done, blow your nose to remove the excess solution and mucus. Repeat this process with the other nostril. One can perform this at least once a day and later on a few times a week. If one is not sure how to perform this, seek the help of an expert rather than doing it by yourself.
- Ginger: A natural decongestant is ginger. It is rich in expectorant, antibacterial, and antiviral properties. Ginger helps reduce over-production of mucus and aids in its expulsion. It is also known to provide relief from chest congestion and sore throat, which are some of the common symptoms of post-nasal drip. One can chew raw ginger slices several times a day or, if this is not preferred, it can be added as a paste during cooking. Another method of taking in ginger is to drink ginger tea. To prepare the tea, add a tablespoon of sliced ginger to a cup of water and tea leaves mixture. Simmer it on low heat for about ten minutes. Strain this mixture and add honey, if desired, for taste. One can consume this ginger tea at least two to three times a day.
- Inhalation of steam: One can make use of steam inhalations, with or without essential oils. Steam inhalation is important to control mucus over-production, which results from a post-nasal drip. First, make a bowl of boiling water, adding essential oils if desired. Drape a towel over your head and hold the face over the hot water. Note that it should not be too close to the hot water, or else it can lead to facial burns. Deeply inhale the steam for about ten minutes. Once this is done, blow your nose over the sink to remove any mucus. This process should be done at least two to three times a day until one has completely recovered. One can also try hot showers to break up the mucus. Steam inhalation is not recommended for small children, since their skin is too sensitive for boiling water and may end up getting burned.
- Garlic: A potent herb, garlic is loaded with antibiotic properties. It helps control excessive production of mucus and prevents infection. It also promotes a speedy recovery. One can take garlic supplements recommended by the doctor, chew raw garlic cloves a few times a day, or chop around three to four garlic cloves and roast them in a teaspoon of butter for a minute, then eat them with warm milk twice a day for a few days.