Catarrh is an excessive build-up of mucus in one of the airways or cavities of the body. It is usually found inside the nose, but it can also occur in the:
Catarrh is not a condition in itself, but a symptom of a condition such as:
- the common cold or another infection
- hay fever or other type of allergic rhinitis
- non-allergic rhinitis (sensitivity to environmental triggers)
- nasal polyps (fleshy swellings inside the nose)
Acute and chronic catarrh
Most cases of catarrh are acute, which means it will pass within a few days once the body fights off the underlying infection. However, some people have chronic (persistent) catarrh, either due to an allergy or because there is an abnormality inside their nose, such as nasal polyps.
The symptoms of acute catarrh can usually be relieved by taking a short-term course of decongestants. Treatment for chronic catarrh will depend on the underlying causes. For more information, see Catarrh - treatment
- Acute means occuring suddenly or over a short period of time.
- Chronic usually means a condition that continues for a long time or keeps coming back.
- Decongestant medicine relieves congestion by reducing the swelling of the lining the nose and sinuses and drying up the mucous.
Symptoms associated with catarrh
The symptoms often associated with catarrh include:
- a blocked and stuffy nose
- a runny nose or mucus running down the back of your throat
- an irritating, persistent cough caused by excess mucus at the back of your throat
- facial pain caused by a blocked nose and blocked sinuses
- a loss of smell and taste
- temporary partial hearing loss and a crackling sensation in your middle ear
- Pain is an unpleasant physical or emotional feeling that your body produces as a warning sign that it has been damaged.
Causes of catarrh
Catarrh is caused by your immune system reacting to an infection or irritation in one of the cavities of your body, such as inside the nose.
The immune system will send infection-fighting white blood cells to the source of the infection or irritation. The white blood cells cause the linings of your cavity to swell and produce mucus. This swelling also narrows the cavity, which causes decongestion.
Triggers of catarrh
The most common triggers of catarrh are:
- infections, such as the common cold
- allergic reactions, for example, reactions to pollen or dust mites (allergic rhinitis)
Other triggers include:
- an over-sensitivity to environmental triggers (non-allergic rhinitis; see below)
- an abnormality inside the nose, such as nasal polyps (see below)
For reasons that are unknown, some people have abnormally sensitive blood vessels that react to environmental triggers, such as cigarette smoke and pollution. This sensitivity causes the blood vessels to expand (swell), much like they do in response to an infection or allergic reaction. This swelling leads to congestion and catarrh.
A non-allergic reaction to environmental triggers is known as vasomotor rhinitis, or non-allergic rhinitis.
Triggers of non-allergic rhinitis include:
- chemical irritants, such as smoke, perfumes or paint fumes
- changes in the weather, such as a drop in temperature
- spicy food
For more information, see the Health A-Z topic on non-allergic rhinitis.
Nasal polyps are non-cancerous, fleshy swellings that grow from the lining of your nose or your sinuses (the small cavities inside your nose). They can prevent mucus from properly draining out of your sinuses, leading to congestion and catarrh.
For more information, see the Health A-Z topic on nasal polyps.
Diagnosing the causes of catarrh
Most cases of acute catarrh do not need to be diagnosed as the underlying infection should pass quickly without treatment.
A number of different methods can be used to diagnose the causes of chronic (persistent) catarrh.
Your GP may examine your nose to check that there are no nasal polyps. They may also recommend that you have a CT scan to check for polyps that are not visible to the naked eye.
Your GP may also want to check that your catarrh is not the result of an allergic reaction. They may ask whether your symptoms are worse in particular environments, or at certain times of the day or year. This will help them to pinpoint a possible allergen (substance that causes an allergic reaction).
If your GP suspects that an allergic reaction is causing your catarrh, they may refer you for allergy testing. This will usually involve a skin prick test, where allergens are placed on your arm and introduced into your skin by pricking it with a short pin. If there is a positive reaction, the skin in that area will become itchy, red and swollen. For more information, see the Health A-Z page on diagnosing allergic rhinitis.
Chronic catarrh can also be caused by non-allergic rhinitis. However, diagnosing non-allergic rhinitis can be difficult because it shares many of the same symptoms as allergic rhinitis, but there are no specific tests for the condition. If tests show that you are not having any allergic reactions, a diagnosis of non-allergic rhinitis can be made.
Treatment for catarrh depends largely on the underlying cause.
In most cases of acute catarrh, the underlying infection should pass quickly without the need for treatment. You may wish to relieve a blocked nose by using:
- steam inhalation
Decongestant medicines can help to relieve a blocked nose by reducing the swelling of the blood vessels in your nose.
Many decongestants can be bought over the counter in pharmacies without a prescription. They can be taken as a tablet or as a nasal spray. Decongestants that are taken by mouth may take a little longer to work but their effect can last longer than nasal sprays.
Do not use decongestants for more than five to seven days at a time. This is because they only provide short-term relief, and using them for any longer can make your symptoms worse.
Decongestant medicines do not often cause side effects. Any that you may have are likely to be mild. Possible side effects of decongestant nasal sprays may include:
- irritation to the lining of your nose
- nausea (feeling sick)
For more information, see the Health A-Z topic on decongestant drugs.
Inhaling steam from a bowl of hot (but not boiling) water may help to soften and loosen the build-up of mucus in your nose. You may also find that adding menthol crystals or eucalyptus oil to the water eases your blocked nose and catarrh. Steam inhalation is not recommended as a treatment for children because of the risk of scalding.
The recommended treatment for chronic catarrh will depend on the underlying cause.
For example, rhinitis can usually be managed by avoiding the environmental triggers or allergens that cause catarrh. Symptoms can sometimes be relieved by using a nasal spray that contains corticosteroids (drugs that reduce inflammation). For more information, see Treating non-allergic rhinitis and Treating allergic rhinitis.
Small nasal polyps can often be shrunk using a nasal spray that contains steroids. Larger polyps may need to be removed with surgery. For more information, see Treating nasal polyps.