Catarrh is an excessive build-up of thick phlegm or mucus in an airway or cavity of the body.
It is usually found in the sinuses (air-filled cavities in the bones of the face that drain into the nose), but it can also occur in the throat, ears or chest.
This can lead to:
- a blocked and stuffy nose
- a runny nose or mucus that runs down the back of your throat
- an irritating, persistent cough caused by excess mucus at the back of your throat
- a headache
- 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
What causes catarrh?
Catarrh is caused by the immune system reacting to an infection or irritation. The immune system is the body’s natural defence against infection and illness.
Your immune system sends infection-fighting white blood cells to the source of the infection or irritation. These release molecules called inflammatory mediators which cause the mucous membranes to swell and produce mucus. The swelling also narrows the cavity, resulting in further congestion.
Catarrh is not a condition itself, but a symptom of conditions such as:
- the common cold or other infections
- hay fever or other types of allergic rhinitis – nasal inflammation caused by an allergic reaction to allergens such as pollen, animals or dust mites
- non-allergic rhinitis – sensitivity to environmental triggers, such as changes in humidity
- nasal polyps – fleshy swellings inside the nose
The links above provide more detailed information on these conditions.
In some cases, people can experience chronic catarrh, which is not caused by an allergy or infection and lasts for a long time. The cause of chronic catarrh is unknown but it may be related to an abnormality in the lining of the throat.
Should I see my GP?
In most cases, catarrh will clear up as the underlying infection only lasts a short period of time.
However, some people may experience chronic catarrh, which can be frustrating to live with.
If your catarrh persists, speak to your GP. They may want to rule out conditions such as nasal polyps and find out if your catarrh is being caused by an allergic reaction.
Self-help techniques are often the best way of managing chronic catarrh if a cause cannot be found.
If your catarrh hasn’t cleared up on its own, your treatment will depend on the underlying cause.
When no cause can be identified, self-help techniques are the best way to relieve symptoms. This may include:
- simple environmental changes – such as avoiding warm, dry atmospheres
- avoiding dehydration
- saline nasal rinses
- decongestant medicines
Read more about how catarrh is treated.
Treatment for catarrh may not be necessary because it often disappears within a few days, after your body has fought off the infection.
If treatment is required, the type of treatment recommended will depend on the underlying cause. For example:
- rhinitis can usually be managed by avoiding the allergens or environmental triggers that cause catarrh – read more about treating allergic rhinitis and treating non-allergic rhinitis
- nasal polyps may be treated with a nasal spray containing steroids, or surgery may be used to remove larger nasal polyps – read more about treating nasal polyps
If no cause can be found, you may be able to reduce the amount of catarrh you produce with the following self-help techniques:
- avoid atmospheres which may dry out your airways – for example, air conditioning and car heating systems
- plants or bowls of water in a room may help to moisten the atmosphere
- ensure you are not dehydrated
- try to breathe through your nose instead of your mouth
- use a saline nasal rinse several times a day – these can be bought from a chemist or made at home with half a teaspoon of salt in a pint of boiled (then cooled) water
- decongestants (see below)
Decongestants help relieve a blocked nose by reducing swelling of blood vessels in your nose.
Decongestants are available in tablet form or as a nasal spray and can be bought from pharmacies without a prescription. Oral decongestants (those taken by mouth) may take a little longer to work, but their effect can last longer than nasal sprays.
You should 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 longer than seven days may make your symptoms worse.
Decongestants do not usually cause side effects and, if they do, they are likely to be mild. Possible side effects of decongestant nasal sprays may include:
- irritation to the lining of your nose
- nausea (feeling sick)
Read more about decongestant medicines.