Over-the-counter nasal sprays
It’s cold season, and I see so many ads in the media for nasal sprays.
The best tip for saving money on OTC nasal sprays is to know the ingredients used in the different products. Read the labels!
When you understand which ingredient is best for which nasal problem, you can shop for the best price.
Nasal sprays fall roughly into three categories:
- Allergy sprays
- Decongestant sprays
- Hydrating sprays
There are multiple products of each type.
And keep in mind that most nasal sprays are only moderately effective at best. The best solution to your nasal problem might not be a nasal spray at all.
Most allergy sprays contain a corticosteroid that reduces the swelling inside your nose and sinuses. Common brand names are Flonase (fluticasone propionate), Nasacort (triamcinolone acetonide), and Rhinocort (budesonide).
While these topical steroids are pretty good at reducing inflammation, they take several days to work and need to be used regularly to be most effective. They used to be only available by prescription and were really expensive. The OTC products are much cheaper, but are only worth the price if allergies are making your life miserable and oral antihistamines aren’t enough, or you don’t want to take an oral medication.
The other type of allergy spray is called a mast cell stabilizer. It blocks histamines, the chemicals that cause the itching and runny nose. NasalCrom (cromolyn sodium) is the most well known product in this category.
Like the steroid sprays, mast cell stabilizers don’t provide immediate relief, and need to be used every day while the symptoms last.
All the allergy sprays are pretty safe. The most frequent side effective is nose bleed. Follow the directions on the package, and don’t use longer than recommended.
Which allergy spray is better? I don’t know. There aren’t any studies that compare these two types of products. Steroids decrease inflammation after the allergy sets in; mast cell stabilizers are more preventive because they attempt to neutralize the allergy before it causes symptoms.
If the nasal symptoms of allergies really bother you, try both and see which works best for you. Or skip the sprays and try a neti pot, instead (my favorite allergy treatment).
This is probably the most popular type of nasal spray, and it’s my least favorite. The decongestant oxymetazoline is the main ingredient in Afrin, Vicks, Mucinex and Zicam nasal sprays. It’s a vasoconstrictor; it reduces stuffiness by constricting the small blood vessels in your nose and sinuses.
Unlike the allergy sprays, nasal decongestants provide immediate relief. The downside, however, is that after only a few uses you can get something called “rebound stuffiness.” You spray and spray but your nose doesn’t feel better. In fact, it feels worse, and it can takes days to weeks for your sinuses to return to normal. You may even end up with a sinus infection because your nose can’t drain effectively and bacteria start to take over.
A more common side effect is a dry nose and more frequent nose bleeds.
I’ve tried nasal decongestant sprays a few times, but have always found the side effects to be worse than the colds I was trying to treat. Now I just try to stay hydrated and use a neti pot, steam, or a saline nasal spray to lessen the congestion.
Related post: The most effective cold remedies
The mucosa lining your nose and sinuses is very vascular and very sensitive. It works and feels best when it’s kept moist and healthy (that’s the main reason I don’t like decongestants of any kind—they’re too drying).
The best tip to stay hydrated is to drink lots of fluids every day. I aim for 6-8 glasses of water, sports drink, tea or juice.
In the winter, however, the air indoors and outdoors can be exceptionally dry. Our noses often need a little extra help.
You can use a neti pot, like I do, or buy a simple saline nasal spray. These are very inexpensive, easy to use, and have no harmful side effects. You can use a saline nasal spray as many times a day as you want!
Some products also contain a mild moisturizer, such as glycerin.
I bring a saline nasal spray with me when I fly because airplanes dry out my nose so badly.
The bottom line on nasal sprays is this: Know the different ingredients and what you need, read the labels, and always follow the directions.
If in doubt, talk to the pharmacist or your health care provider.
I don’t recommend using nasal decongestants, but for allergies or general nose hydration, these are good products to try.