Allergies and cold symptoms can present in many ways. While irritating, they usually are not dangerous. However, many people choose to combat their runny noses and congestion with special sprays that target the nasal passages directly.

There are various types of nasal sprays that can be used for different symptoms. They also have different side effects. Understanding the uses and risks can help you choose the best option.

What They Treat

A variety of over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription nasal sprays are available from grocery stores, pharmacies, and other retailers, and each has a unique purpose.

Most OTC products promise some level of relief from issues like nasal congestion, sneezing, and runny noses by targeting inflammation in the nasal passages or by actively encouraging the release of mucus.

ill woman on the couch using a nasal spray


Prescription Versions

Prescription nasal sprays are often a bit more powerful than their OTC counterparts and can address a wider range of issues. For example, some shrink nasal polyps, which can be responsible for congestion, headaches, and even loss of smell.

It is important to note that not all nasal sprays treat respiratory conditions. A growing number of medications, such as those for conditions like osteoporosis or migraines, are using a nasal spray delivery method.

doctor holding out a nasal spray bottle


Pre-Spay Preparation

  • Before using a nasal spray, always read the instructions or follow the guidance of the doctor who prescribed the medication.
  • The sprays can be ineffective if the nasal passages are not clear enough to breathe through because the medication will not penetrate deep enough.
  • Some products need priming before use, so squirt them into the air a couple of times until they release a fine mist.
  • Make sure to store the sprays as the instructions direct, keeping them out of direct sunlight and away from children.

woman blowing her nose, common cold, congestion


Safety Tips for Nasal Sprays

People tend to make a few common errors that can reduce the effectiveness of their nasal spray or increase the risk of side effects.

Never aim towards the middle section of the nose, called the septum. Spraying the drug directly onto the septum can damage the tissue, causing irritation or a nosebleed. Keep your head upright to prevent the medication from traveling down the throat, and avoid blowing your nose for a short period after using the nasal spray.

woman using a nasal spray


Potential Side Effects

Though they are typically safe for occasional use, nasal sprays can cause mild symptoms such as bleeding, burning, dryness, anxiety, headaches, and nausea.

If the mild side effects persist or worsen—or if more serious issues appear—contact a medical professional. Some of these more dangerous symptoms are include dizziness, fatigue or weakness, insomnia, irregular or rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, tremors, and vision changes.

man experiencing dizziness lightheaded


How Long to Use Nasal Sprays

Most nasal sprays are safe for regular, short-term use. This typically refers to using the spray as necessary for a few days, depending on the instructions on the package. Do not use an OTC nasal spray more than three days in a row or off-and-on for longer than a month without a doctor’s order.

When taking prescription sprays, follow the doctor’s advice and only stop using the spray when they advise it.

doctor talking to patient about prescription nasal spray


The Rebound Effect

If a person uses a nasal spray too much, the effectiveness can drop dramatically. This is called the rebound effect, but it usually only occurs with one type of spray: decongestants.

Do not use decongestant nasal sprays for more than three or four days in a row. Doing so risks building up a tolerance to the drugs. Side effects like bitter smells or tastes, nasal irritation, and some issues like persistent nosebleeds can occur following the overuse of a decongestant nasal spray.

older woman holding sore congested nose


When to Avoid Nasal Sprays

Though most people can use nasal sprays without worry, there are a few contraindications. For example, people with high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism, or diabetes should speak with a medical professional before using a spray.

The same also goes for anyone taking other medications and people with damaged nasal passages—such as from excessive use of a decongestant. A nasal spray may worsen their condition.

doctor looking at patient's nose


Nasal Spray Use While Pregnant or Nursing

Always speak to a doctor before using a nasal spray while pregnant or nursing, even if it is an OTC product. There is little research exploring what effects these medications may have on a fetus or pregnant person.

Avoiding the products during these periods is the best way to limit potential issues.

pregnant woman with cold blowing her nose


Combining Medications

Experts say it is safe to use oral allergy medications in combination with nasal sprays in most circumstances. However, some research points to nasal sprays being much more effective in managing allergy symptoms, so taking oral medications may be unnecessary.

There is always the potential for overuse or medication interactions, so be cautious when using multiple products at once. Additionally, if symptoms persist or worsen after using one or more medications, seek medical attention.

person at pharmacy holding nasal spray and pill medication


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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.