When you think of side effects or symptoms brought on by pregnancy, nasal congestion and runny nose are not typically among the first to come to mind.
But maybe they should. Having a stuffy nose, difficulty breathing or sleeping, and snoring when pregnant can be alarming, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the start of flu season.
Pregnancy rhinitis, also called gestational rhinitis, is a common ailment in the second and third trimesters, affecting approximately 20% of women. Characterized by inflammation and swelling of the mucous membranes in the nose, pregnancy rhinitis symptoms include congestion (nasal obstruction), sneezing, postnasal drip, and runny nose. These symptoms can also lead to poor sleep when your growing belly might already be making it difficult to rest.
All these issues can dramatically affect your mood and quality of life. The good news is that, for most patients, pregnancy rhinitis is temporary and there are safe, effective treatments available.
I've invited my colleague, Ashleigh Halderman, M.D., an ear, nose, and throat specialist at UT Southwestern to explain in more detail the causes of pregnancy rhinitis and how patients can manage their symptoms.
What causes pregnancy rhinitis?
The root cause of rhinitis can be allergic (affected by environmental irritants) or non-allergic (caused by infection). However, we are still learning how rhinitis is related to pregnancy.
We know that smoking, as well as having chronic rhinitis before pregnancy, predisposes patients to developing pregnancy rhinitis. Research suggests a few more potential causes:
- Having extra fluid in the body: During pregnancy, the body makes more blood and fluids, which can cause swelling, even in unexpected places such as the nasal passages. Blood vessels in the nose can swell with this additional volume, causing stuffiness.
- Higher levels of estrogen: Estrogen in older formulations of birth control pills has been associated with a side effect of nasal obstruction. However, in studies of the menstrual cycle, we don't see congestion with fluctuating estrogen levels. So, the connection remains unclear for now.
- Creation of human growth hormone: The placenta creates a variant of the human growth hormone (HGH), which has been associated with nasal symptoms in other conditions. For example, tumors that grow on the pituitary glands secrete growth hormones, which can cause severe nasal congestion.
Gestational rhinitis is under-researched. Data to date suggest no known association of rhinitis with pre-existing asthma, maternal age, duration of pregnancy, or the number of times a patient has been pregnant. However, a recent study found that patients carrying female babies were diagnosed significantly more often than patients carrying male babies.
Related reading: How to manage allergies and asthma during pregnancy
How long do symptoms last?
The annoying, uncomfortable symptoms of pregnancy rhinitis typically last six weeks or longer. For most patients, symptoms typically resolve two weeks after delivery.
Approximately a third of patients who had chronic rhinitis before pregnancy will have the same level of symptoms during, and a third will experience worsening of rhinitis symptoms. However, the remaining third will have less severe or no symptoms during pregnancy. I've had many women tell me they've felt the best, sinus-wise, when they were pregnant. However, there's no specific reason why this occurs.
Related reading: 5 weird pregnancy symptoms you might not know about
What treatments are available?
The first step toward relief is a visit with your doctor to rule out infection, such as COVID-19, influenza, or sinusitis. We may also recommend testing for concerns such as sinusitis or pregnancy tumor (pyogenic granuloma) – a non-cancerous growth of blood vessels that may appear during pregnancy.
From there, your doctor and Ob/Gyn may suggest:
- Getting regular exercise: Working out has been shown to significantly help relieve nasal congestion and regulate the sleep cycle. All the more reason to bust a move during pregnancy!
- Elevating your mattress: Try positioning the mattress so your whole body is situated at a 45-degree angle. While not widely studied, patients have reported that this helps clear the nasal passages enough to sleep.
- Using a humidifier: Adding a little moisture to the air can help alleviate nasal irritation. Many patients use them at night to wake up feeling less stuffy.
- Trying a sinus wash: Nasal saline sprays or sinus irrigation systems such as a neti pot can help clear the sinuses. Make sure to use distilled or boiled (and cooled) water – using water straight from the tap is not recommended.
Topical decongestants such as Afrin can be incredibly and immediately effective, but there is a risk of dependency. If you use this type of treatment more than once or twice a week, your nose can become "addicted" to it, which can lead to rhinitis medicamentosa – the spray will stop working as well, and your symptoms may get worse. Also, unlike gestational rhinitis, rhinitis medicamentosa won’t resolve after you deliver. It will only resolve when you stop using topical decongestants.
In general, pregnant patients can take decongestants that include pseudoephedrine as directed. However, we always recommend talking with your Ob/Gyn first, especially if you have high blood pressure.
Your Ob/Gyn might also recommend a steroid nasal spray, such as Flonase or Rhinocort, for severe symptoms. If you were using a spray to manage chronic rhinitis prior to pregnancy, your Ob/Gyn might advise you to keep using it during pregnancy. It is generally considered safe to use these products while breastfeeding, under your Ob/Gyn's guidance.
Your body will change in interesting ways during pregnancy. If you have new or unusual symptoms, call your doctor. We'll help you sort out what's normal from what could be a sinus infection or respiratory illness.