Alternative names
Runny nose; Postnasal drip; Nasal discharge


Nasal discharge is any mucus-like material that comes out of the nose.


Nasal discharges are common, but rarely serious. Drainage from inflamed or infected sinuses may be thick or discolored.

Excess mucus production may run down the back of your throat (postnasal drip) or cause a cough that is usually worse at night. A sore throat may also result from excessive mucus drainage.

The mucus drainage may plug up the tube between the nose and the ear, causing an ear infection and pain. The mucus drip may also plug the sinus passages, causing sinus infection and pain.

Common Causes

  • The common cold or the flu - nasal secretions contain antibodies that act against viruses and carry them out of the body  
  • Hay fever - nasal secretions are usually clear and very thin  
  • Sinusitis - the nasal secretions may be thick and discolored yellow, brown, or green  
  • Head injury  
  • Bacterial infections  
  • Small objects in the nostril (especially in children)  
  • Nasal sprays (drops containing vasoconstrictors may cause rebound rhinorrhea, if used longer than 3 consecutive days)

Home Care

Keep the mucus thin rather than thick and sticky. This helps prevent complications, such as ear and sinus infections, and plugging of your nasal passages. To thin the mucus:

  • Use saline nasal sprays.  
  • Drink extra fluids.  
  • Increase the humidity in the air with a vaporizer or humidifier.

Antihistamines may reduce the amount of mucus. Be careful, because some antihistamines may make you drowsy. Don’t use over-the-counter nasal sprays more frequently than 3 days on and 3 days off, unless ordered by the doctor.


Many people think that a green or yellow nasal discharge means a bacterial infection, which requires antibiotics. This is NOT true. Colds will often begin with a clear nasal discharge, but after several days it usually turns creamy yellow or green. Colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics will not help. A green or yellow nasal discharge is not a sign you need antibiotics.

Call your health care provider if

  • A nasal discharge follows a Head injury.  
  • The drainage is foul smelling, one-sided, or a color other than white or yellow.  
  • Symptoms persist beyond 3 weeks.  
  • There is fever along with nasal discharge.

What to expect at your health care provider’s office
Your doctor may perform a physical examination, including an examination of the ears, nose, and throat.

Your doctor may ask medical history questions, such as:

  • Is the discharge thin and watery or is it thick?  
  • Is it bloody?  
  • What color is it?  
  • How long has the nasal discharge been present?  
  • Is it present all the time?  
  • What other symptoms are also present?  
  • Is your nose stuffy or congested?  
  • Do you have a cough or headache?  
  • Do you have a sore throat?  
  • Do you have a fever?

Diagnostic tests that may be performed for persistent problems include:

For allergic rhinitis, antihistamines may be prescribed. Antibiotics should only be prescribed for bacterial infections.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 3, 2012
by Levon Ter-Markosyan, D.M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.