This condition known as "rhinitis of pregnancy" affects as many as 30% of pregnant women and can start in the second month of pregnancy; it tends to worsen later in pregnancy. The nasal congestion should ease up soon after giving birth and be gone completely within two weeks after delivery.
The nasal congestion occurs due to elevated amounts of estrogen causing swelling of nasal mucous membranes. Furthermore, there is a marked increased in circulating blood in the body which also leads to swelling of the tiny blood vessels lining the nose. Bloodflow causing nasal obstruction (turbinate hypertrophy) is not unusual and even occurs in men (laying down on one side causes nasal obstruction that than switches when laying down on the other side; improves when sitting/standing).
On exam, a common finding are large inferior turbinates. Inferior turbinates are soft tissue outpouchings within the nose that warm and humidify the air as nasal breathing occurs. Normally, they are quite small, but with rhinitis of pregnancy, they can become enormous... even quadrupling in size.
|Inferior Turbinates Seen on Exam|
Generally speaking, my approach to treating this uncomfortable condition is as follows (assuming all other causes are ruled out and no medical contraindications):
1) Regular HYPER-tonic saltwater nasal irrigations to the nose 3-4x per day. I recommend HYPER-tonic saltwater rather than regular strength saltwater. Why? Salt sucks moisture out of the nose. With regular strength saltwater (aka, normal saline), the saltwater concentration is equal to that found within the body and minimal if any moisture displacement (osmosis) occurs. With HYPER-tonic saltwater, given the increased salt concentration compared to that found within the body, moisture leaves the nose allowing for decongestion to occur.
Nasal irrigations can be performed with Neti Pot or NeilMed Sinus Rinse Bottle. Hypertonic salt packets can be purchased and mixed with 8 ounces distilled water. Or, if you want to make it yourself, 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in 8 ounces of distilled water.
2) Rhinocort AQ steroid nasal spray 2 sprays on each side daily. Steroids help to decrease swelling, especially the large inferior turbinates. This steroid nasal spray is the ONLY steroid nasal spray that is Class B for pregnancy.
3) Keep the head elevated when you lie down. This reduces the blood flow to the nose which exacerbates the nasal congestion.
Of course, steps 1 and 2 assume that there is SOME room for the treatment to occur. If the nose is 100% blocked up, use over-the-counter Afrin nasal spray a few times to get things to open up (never more than 3 days). Once opened up some, immediately start #1 and 2. It is not healthy nor wise to use afrin too much. Ideally, it may need to be used for 1 day only and no more thereafter. There is also some concern that decongestant use during only the first trimester may cause some birth defects (read more). Even in non-pregnant individuals, afrin should never be used more than a few consecutive days otherwise risk addiction!
Response to treatment typically occurs within 2 weeks.