Whether it's cold symptoms or allergy season, sinus congestion and a runny nose can make life miserable. It's especially challenging with infants and young children and for nursing mothers. We're sharing natural decongestants that relieve sinus pressure and stuffy noses without the side effects of OTC medications.
Why Use Home Remedies for Congestion?
I turned to natural decongestants because I don't like the side effects of over-the-counter decongestants. They either make me jittery, knock me out, or make my head feel like it's going to shrivel up like a raisin.
Some people develop more severe side effects, such as hypertension, headache, nausea, insomnia and dizziness. Topical nasal decongestants often become less effective with frequent use.
Decongestants such as Sudafed may dry up milk production, so are best avoided by nursing mothers.
Sometimes something as simple as an extra pillow to boost your head up will help, but most of the time I need something a bit more. Adults can use any of the remedies listed, with the exception of pregnant women and nursing mothers, as noted. Children are more sensitive, and sometimes refuse strong flavored drinks, so simple remedies are best for kids.
Best Overall Natural Decongestant – Tomato Tea
Nasal congestion is caused by inflamed blood vessels in the sinuses. These blood vessels swell and trap mucus, leading to a stuffy nose and congestion.
This recipe relieves congestion with a combination of heat, acid, reducing inflammation, and fighting infection. Hot drinks help to thin mucus in your nasal passages, making them easier to clear.
Tomato tea is rich in antioxidants, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory. It also tastes pretty good if you like spicy drinks. Get the tomato tea recipe here.
For nursing mothers, the garlic in the tea might be too much for baby. Try the recipe without the garlic, or use the recommendations below. Kids may or may not be willing to drink tomato tea, but it works well for them, too.
Runner Up – Nasal Irrigation with a Neti Pot or Nasal Spray
Dry air and pollutants can irritate the sinuses. Nasal irrigation with a neti pot or saline solution may help to flush irritants (and boogers). Some people swear by nasal irrigation, others can't stand it.
For those with a deviated septum, it doesn't tend to work well as a home remedy for congestion. The warm water goes in, but doesn't come back out very well.
If you chose to use a neti pot, make sure to use sterile or distilled water. In rare cases, people have died from Naegleria fowleri (brain eating amoebas) in their neti pot water.
It's okay to use nasal irrigation daily for congestion, but avoid excessive use, which may cause irritation. A 2020 study found that nasal irrigation reduced sinus inflammation, post nasal drip, and nasal secretion.
Alternate – DIY Vapor Rub
Take about and ounce of coconut oil or palm shortening and add 7-10 drops of good quality essential oil and mix well. Spread on the chest area or dab under the nose for sinus pressure relief.
Pine, spruce, fir and cypress are safe for children over 2. Never use essential oil directly on your skin – always use a carrier oil.
Eucalyptus and rosemary essential oils are safe for breastfeeding mothers. Peppermint is safe during pregnancy, but best avoided during breastfeeding.
Do not use mint essential oils for children under 6. Do not use eucalyptus and rosemary essential oils for children under 10. (Read why you should not use eucalyptus oil for children at Food Renegade.)
Many essential oils are also problematic for pets, so it's best to avoid random exposure for them, too.
Alternate – Oil Pulling
Oil pulling works best to loosen mild congestion, since you still need to be able to breath through your nose. Take a spoonful of good quality oil, such as coconut or sesame, and place it in your mouth. Swish and pull it through your teeth for 10-15 minutes.
See Oil Pulling – Fact Versus Fiction for more information.
Best Natural Decongestant for Nursing Mothers – Apple Cider Vinegar Tea
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) is another popular natural decongestant choice. You can make your own apple cider vinegar from apple scraps. Studies validate ACV claims, finding it antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral.
One of the easiest and most effective ways to use ACV for congestion is apple cider vinegar tea. Vinegar contains potassium, which thins mucus. It also contains polyphenols, which can help reduce cold symptoms.
Apple cider vinegar tea combines ACV with other immune boosting ingredients. It has a milder flavor than tomato tea, so it's less likely to cause tummy upset for mom or baby.
Runner Up for Nursing Mothers – Herbal Tea
Lemon provides extra vitamin C, and honey is naturally antibacterial, so do include them in your brew.
To make an herbal tea, cover 2 teaspoons dried leaves or 1/4 cup fresh leaves with 1 cup boiling water. Steep for five to ten minutes, and then strain and enjoy.
For ginger root, use about a 1/2 inch piece of fresh root, or 1/2 tsp-1 tsp of dried root bits. A 2020 study showed that ginger extract was as effective as Loratadine for treating allergic rhinitis, without the side effects.
I like to steep in a tea pot or cover my tea mug to keep the vapors from escaping.
Alternate – Choose Foods That Clear Congestion
The following foods may help fight sinus congestion:
- Omega 3 Fatty acids (found in cold water fish, walnuts, eggs, fish oil, cod oil and flaxseed)
- Spices and Herbs such as horseradish, hot mustard and cayenne pepper
- Vitamin C
- Apple Cider Vinegar
Back in college, a group of us went out to a Chinese restaurant. One of the guys had a bit of a head cold. Another guy dared him to sniff some Chinese Hot mustard.
Being a young and foolish male, he tried it. After yelping in pain, he found that his congestion was gone. I'd recommend simply adding spices to your food.
It's also important to drink plenty of water or other non-caffeinated beverages. These help you stay hydrated and loosen phlegm.
Alternate – Warm Salt Water Gargle
Again, this home remedy for congestion works best for mild stuffiness.
Warm salt water soothes throat tissue irritated by nasal drainage. The heat, moisture and gargling action helps to move and shift booger build up.
Best Natural Decongestant for Infants and Children
Steam is the easiest and safest way to help relieve congestion for infants and children. For quick relief, try a hot shower. Carefully hold baby (away from the water stream) and allow the steam to help loosen the mucus. The skin to skin contact with mom or dad is also good for baby.
To improve sleep and reduce dry air irritation, add a humidifier to the room. It's safe to use steam several times a day, or keep a humidifier running all day and night.
For older children (and adults), try herbal steam therapy. Take a large bowl and add fresh or dried herbs such as eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint or New England Aster.
Pour in boiling hot water. Lean over bowl and inhale the steam as best you can, tenting your head with a towel to trap the vapors. You can also use a personal steamer like this one.
Runner Up for Children – Warm Compress
The soothing heat of a warm compress can reduce inflammation and open up a stuffy nose. Since there's nothing but gentle heat, it's completely safe for children.
Soak a wash cloth in warm water and squeeze out the excess. Fold it and apply to the nose and forehead, keeping the nostrils clear.
You can also use a rice hot pack or other small heating pad. Always make sure to test for comfort and don't get the warm compress too hot.
Alternate – Avoid Foods That May Make Congestion Worse
Limiting the following foods may help to reduce mucus:
- Dairy products
- potatoes and other starchy root vegetables
You can see why a paleo/primal diet may be helpful for those suffering with chronic congestion.
Kids tend to bounce back pretty quickly with fresh air, exercise and good nutrition. Avoiding trigger food may be enough to help speed recovery.
Which Home Remedies for Congestion Work Best for You?
Did I miss any natural congestion remedies? Share what works for you.
Don't forget to check out the rest of our Home Remedies Series. We have dozens of posts on the site, including:
- 15 Home Remedies for Hay Fever and Seasonal Allergies
- 12 Home Remedies for Cough
- 7 Natural Sore Throat Remedies
- 12 Home Remedies for Earaches
- 25 Immune Boosting Herbs & Spices
This post is intended for general information only. Please see a medical professional if pain is severe or sinus problems last for an extended time.
This article is written by Laurie Neverman. Laurie is a lifelong learner with a passion for natural remedies and holistic healing. She’s successfully improved her eyesight and cleared her psoriasis.
Last updated in 2023.