catarrhThe clogged nose and breathlessness associated with catarrh can make it hard to sleep.Catarrh is an excessive build-up of thick phlegm or mucus, usually in the sinuses – the air-filled cavities either side of your nose, but occasionally in the ears, throat or chest.

 What causes catarrh?

The immune system creates catarrh to help remove an infection or irritation. White blood cells in the nose release molecules that make the mucous membranes swell and produce mucus. The swelling also narrows the cavity, so you feel more bunged up.

 Catarrh is a symptom of:

  • In most cases, the common cold or another respiratory tract infection.
  • Allergic rhinitis (inflammation in the nose caused by a reaction to allergens).
  • Non-allergic rhinitis triggered by abnormally sensitive blood vessels reacting to environmental triggers, such as cigarette smoke, pollution or changes in temperature or humidity.
  • Nasal polyps, which are non-cancerous fleshy swellings that grow out from the lining of the nose or nasal sinuses. Polyps prevent the mucus from draining so cause chronic nasal congestion.


Persistent or chronic catarrh could indicate an ongoing infection, allergic reaction, or nasal polyps, so speak to your GP. An examination of your nose can reveal nasal polyps.

Where an allergen is suspected, questions about when and where your symptoms worsen can pinpoint a possible substance or environmental trigger that causes your allergic reaction. If a substance looks a likely culprit you may need to take a skin prick test. Read more about diagnosing allergic rhinitis at Allergy Testing.

Diagnosing non-allergic rhinitis can be harder because there are no specific tests for the condition. If allergy tests are negative, non-allergic rhinitis may be the cause.

Treating catarrh

Catarrh that comes from an infection doesn’t usually need any other treatment than drinking plenty of fluids, resting and possibly taking an over-the-counter decongestant, to reduce the swelling of blood vessels in your nose. Inhaling steam from a bowl of hot (but not boiling) water containing menthol crystals, friar’s balsam, tea tree, olbas or eucalyptus oil may also help to soften and loosen up the mucus in your nasal cavities. Even without treatment, the catarrh will clear up after your body has fought off the infection and your sleep pattern will return to normal.

If treatment for an allergen is required, the type recommended will depend on the underlying cause. Where the environment is a factor of non-allergenic chronic catarrh, avoiding the situation that triggers it may be the answer.

Small nasal polyps may be shrunk by using a nasal spray containing steroids. Larger nasal polyps may be surgically removed.

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