Colds (rhinitis) - causes and treatment

Colds (rhinitis) - causes and treatment

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How can you treat runny nose successfully?

Rhinitis can appear as a symptom of a disease or as an independent disease. Inflammation of the nasal mucosa with restricted nasal breathing, sneezing and watery to slimy secretions are characteristic. There are acute and chronic forms of infectious and non-infectious causes.

Quick help for acute colds

Without further complaints or complications, a runny nose can be annoying, but usually does not require medical attention. Numerous home remedies for colds have also proven to help relieve the symptoms. These include, for example, hot steam inhalations with the addition of chamomile, sage or thyme, as well as nasal irrigation with table salt or EMS salt. In general, you should drink a lot during the illness, such as herbal teas with chamomile or elderberry. Fresh air with high humidity and lots of sleep strengthen the body's defenses. More information in the video:

Runny nose - a brief overview

Runny nose is one of the most common complaints worldwide. In addition to infections with viruses and bacteria, allergies can also be the cause. Due to the large number of causative agents, it is not uncommon for people to develop rhinitis several times within a year. Children are affected even more often than adults. If an adult suffers from a nasal catarrh more than four times within a year or if the symptoms persist for more than three months, it can be a chronic course. Here is a brief overview of the symptoms:

  • definition: Infectious disease, largely caused by viruses, in which the nasal mucosa becomes inflamed. The body responds to this with an increased production of nasal secretions.
  • Synonyms: Rhinitis, nasal catarrh, catarrh, Koryza.
  • to form: It can be acute, chronic, allergic or vasomotor.
  • Symptoms: Secretion of watery to viscous nasal mucus, runny nose, soreness in the nose and throat, nasal mucous membranes swell, nasal breathing is restricted.
  • Comorbidities: During an infection, there is an increased risk of additional bacterial infections of the paranasal sinus, middle ear, bronchi, trachea or larynx.
  • Therapy for acute runny nose: Decongestant nasal sprays (maximum one week), inhalations, strengthening the immune system, a lot of hydration, an antibiotic may be required for severe bacterial infections.

Runny nose - definition

In most cases, runny nose is an infectious disease caused by viral germs, with inflammation of the nasal mucosa as the main symptom. Medically, the disease is also known as rhinitis or nasal catarrh. As an independent disease or as a symptom of flu infections and colds, it is one of the most common infections worldwide.

Risk groups

People with a weak immune system are more likely to develop acute rhinitis because their bodies are less able to defend themselves against the viruses. People in a closed group, such as in kindergarten, school or in an office, are also at higher risk of becoming ill as soon as a member of the group is infected because the viruses spread via droplet and smear infections. In particular, the sneezing of a sick person releases a large cloud of droplets (aerosol) containing viruses, which can infect other people.

The different types of colds

There are four main types of colds in medicine, all of which are based on different causes. These include the acute, chronic, allergic and vasomotor forms. The individual forms are explained in more detail below. In contrast to these clearly defined forms of disease, there can also be a constant nasal congestion that cannot be classified in the usual schemes.

Acute runny nose

The acute form is mostly of infectious origin, almost always due to the penetration of viruses. The typical complaints are usually accompanied by general symptoms of a cold such as cough, sore throat, swallowing problems and possibly fever. The increased secretion of the nasal secretion is an attempt by the body to remove germs and toxins, and is therefore to be regarded as a healing process rather than a disease. There are currently over 200 different viruses known to trigger rhinitis. This represents a major hurdle for the development of effective drugs and vaccines. The following virus groups are the most common triggers:

  • Rhinoviruses,
  • Corona viruses,
  • Myxoviruses,
  • Paramyxoviruses,
  • Echoviruses,
  • Coxsackie viruses,
  • Parainfluenza viruses.

Chronic runny nose

A chronic infectious nasal catarrh occurs as an independent condition or joins a frequently recurring acute runny nose. Often there is a predisposition to allergies or a susceptibility to infections in the area of ​​the upper respiratory tract, so-called lymphatic diseases. Persistent runny nose is often accompanied by slimy-purulent secretion, headache and limited smell. If left untreated, it can develop into a sinus infection (sinusitis) or into a middle ear infection (otitis), which can result in hearing loss in severe cases.

Allergic runny nose

If rhinitis occurs permanently, seasonally, after certain activities or after staying in certain places, an allergy can be considered as the cause of the symptoms. It is not pathogenic pathogens that trigger the symptoms, but harmless substances that are classified and controlled by the immune system as pathogens.

With allergic rhinitis (rhinitis allergica), also called hay fever (pollinosis), there are usually accompanying symptoms such as severe watery secretions from the nose, sneezing fits, tearing, itchy rash or burning and itchy eyes. Sometimes there is also a wheal on the skin (urticaria) and / or cough with shortness of breath (asthma allergica). In about 80 percent, grass pollen is the trigger, more rarely trees and shrubs, which cause the spring or cold in spring, which lasts only two to three weeks. In contrast, allergic reactions to animal hair or house dust mites can lead to a cold nose all year round.

Vasomotor runny nose

This form resembles allergic rhinitis in its expression, but no allergens can be detected. A vegetative disorder of the nasal mucosal vessels is suspected, which is hypersensitive to psychological stress, stress, alcohol consumption or after a sudden change in the outside temperature (e.g. entering the house in winter or going out in the cold).

Course of the disease of an acute runny nose

After a person becomes infected with the runny virus, it takes two to seven days of incubation for the first symptoms to appear. An emerging feeling of illness is often perceived as the first sign. This can include fatigue, headache or general fatigue. A burning sensation in the nose or throat pain as well as a feeling of sore in these regions are also common first signs. In the further course, the production of watery nasal mucus is stimulated, which causes a runny nose. But nasal congestion can also occur if the nasal mucous membranes swell. It is not uncommon for inflammation of the nasal entrance area to be associated with the symptoms later on. The symptoms usually subside after about a week.

Comorbidities and complications

When the nose becomes blocked due to excessive nasal mucus production, bacteria settle in the nose, which increases the risk of an additional bacterial infection in adjacent areas of the body. Most often there is a sinus infection or a middle ear infection. In addition, the risk of bronchial, tracheal or laryngitis increases.

When should you see a doctor?

In the case of an acute runny nose with no signs of complications, medical assistance is usually not required. However, if other symptoms such as fever and severe headache and body aches occur, a doctor should be consulted. It is also advisable to see a doctor if:

  • there is a generally strong feeling of illness,
  • There is pressure pain over the frontal or maxillary sinus,
  • there are complaints in the area of ​​the teeth and the tooth support system,
  • the pain increases as you bend over,
  • the breathing difficulties prevail,
  • a constant cough joins the symptoms,
  • you have a cold more than four times a year,
  • the symptoms persist for more than two weeks,
  • the nasal secretion is green or bloody
  • the nose starts to run due to a head injury,
  • if you can no longer sleep because of the symptoms, snore violently or there are breathing interruptions (sleep apnea).

Limits to self-treatment

The Federal Chamber of Pharmacists recommends adhering to the limits of self-treatment. According to the experts, these are exceeded if:

  • There is excessive use of nasal spray
  • it is chronic rhinitis,
  • there is a suspicion of an unexplained allergic cause,
  • Patients suffering from fever above 39 degrees Celsius,
  • the nasal secretion is bloody or purulent,
  • the sinuses and / or the frontal sinuses are involved,
  • Ingredients in the medication are suspected as the cause
  • Facial swelling or pain.

Diagnosis: what does the doctor do?

If there is a visit to the doctor, it is usually checked whether it is a viral or bacterial infection. The throat, neck and nose area are examined. In some cases, a smear of the nasal mucus is taken, which is then checked for pathogens in the laboratory. In addition, in a doctor-patient interview (anamnesis), it is narrowed down whether the course is acute, chronic or allergic. If an allergic reaction is suspected to be the cause, an allergy examination is usually carried out, the so-called prick test. Chronic courses can be clarified via an endoscopy of the nose.
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Runny nose - treatment

In acute viral infections, the cause is less tackled and the symptoms are alleviated. A nasal spray is often used for this, which causes the nasal mucous membranes to swell and thus facilitates nasal breathing. However, such sprays should not be used for longer than a week, as this will in the long term encourage the nasal mucous membrane to swell excessively, which means that there is a risk of increasingly using decongestant drugs. If it is used for too long, damage to the nasal mucosa, such as drying out or crust formation, is possible. You should also drink a lot to keep the nasal secretions as fluid as possible. If the rhinitis is based on a bacterial infection, an antibiotic may be required for severe courses.

Treatment in children

Since the immune system in children has not yet been fully developed, it is much more common for adolescents to have a cold than for adults. In infants and young children, special attention must be paid to the fact that there is an increased risk of inflammation of the throat or lungs during the illness. If children between the ages of two and six years experience persistent runny nose in the cooler months, enlarged throat tonsils (polyps) can also be responsible for the repeated illness. If the nasal secretion is only available on one side and pus is added, a foreign body in the nose can also be considered as the cause.

Runny nose in naturopathy

In naturopathy, one to two colds in a healthy person are regarded as house cleaning of the body, the secretion of mucus as a means of detoxification. Accordingly, treatment methods that do not suppress, but rather support the flow of secretions, are ideally used. There are also a variety of home remedies that can alleviate the symptoms. For example, inhalation of chamomile steam and red light treatments have proven their worth.

Prevention of runny nose

Your own immune system offers the best protection against the common cold. The low temperatures in autumn and winter can weaken the immune system. Therefore you should always dress according to the weather. However, you should also not dress too warm, as this makes the body even more sensitive to the cold. This also applies to showering. The water should not be too hot and occasional cold water units should be sprinkled in. Furthermore, walks in the fresh air in any weather and regular visits to the sauna strengthen the immune system.

Recovery is the best medicine

Insufficient sleep increases the susceptibility to colds. Those who sleep seven to eight hours on a regular basis allow their bodies enough rest to better defend themselves against the viruses and bacteria. The psyche also needs enough relaxation. Negative stress, which arises, for example, from overwork, interpersonal conflicts or constant time pressure, can weaken the immune system and promote colds (but also other illnesses). Positive stress, for example, resulting from hobbies, music, sports or learning new skills, can be beneficial for the immune system (for more information see: Stress reduction made easy).

Healthy nutrition and exercise strengthen the immune system

A strong immune system also includes a healthy and balanced diet that should contain lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish to provide the body with sufficient nutrients. The whole thing should be rounded off with regular exercise, ideally with endurance sports such as walking, jogging, cycling or swimming.

Hygiene protects against pathogens

Hygienic measures also protect the organism from germs. The pathogens are often first on the hands. Door handles, grab handles in buses and trains, banisters and computer mice are just a few of the typical places where germs can be caught quickly. It is therefore important to wash your hands regularly and thoroughly (see: Washing your hands properly). In addition, nasal rinsing with physiological saline solution can reduce the risk of illness because the germs are washed out of the nose. Such flushes are particularly useful, for example, after you have been in large crowds. (jvs; vb; updated on December 11, 2018)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


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  • Federal Chamber of Pharmacists: Information and advice in the context of self-medication using the example of a cold, Bundesvereinigung Deutscher Apothekerverbände e. V. (ABDA), (accessed 07.08.2019), ABDA
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ICD codes for this disease: J31ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find yourself e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.

Video: Rhinitis and Its Treatment. Todd Kingdom, MD, Ear, Nose and Throat. UCHealth (November 2022).