What Is Causing Your Child's Runny Nose?

Little girl blowing her nose into a tissue
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If it seems like your child has a constant runny nose, that may very well be so. A runny nose (rhinorrhea) is a common symptom of many childhood illnesses. As a result, parents sometimes find it hard to determine the root cause and find the most effective treatment.

A runny nose can mean a variety of things, from something as simple as a cold or allergies to something more significant, like a sinus infection.

This article reviews some of the most common reasons children get runny noses, as well as some tips on how to stop them.

Allergies

Research shows around half of children between the ages of 6 and 19 have sensitization to at least one common allergen, with reactivity and inflammation inside the nose being the most common symptoms.

This type of allergic sensitivity is called allergic rhinitis, or hay fever. Allergic rhinitis is caused by the body's immune system over-responding to something in the environment (such as pollen, mold spores, dust mites, or pet dander) that is breathed in.

As the immune system works to fight off and clear out something it sees as an intruder, blood flow and fluid increase. Someone with allergies may experience allergy symptoms like sniffing, sneezing, watery eyes, and itchy, red skin as a result.

As allergies linger or worsen, children may also develop a sore throat, headaches, and coughing. Allergies can disrupt sleep, leaving children feeling irritable and unable to focus the next day.

Most allergies—like seasonal allergies, for example—are uncomfortable, but not altogether serious. Others, like severe food allergies, can be life-threatening.

Allergic rhinitis impacts 40 to 60 million Americans, typically causing itchy nose, runny nose with clear discharge, stuffy nose or congestion, sneezing, and red eyes, with tearing and itching.

Common Cold

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), preschool-age children come down with an average of six to eight colds per year. A runny nose is one symptom of the common cold, which is caused by a viral infection of the nose and throat.

While annoying, having a runny nose with a cold has a purpose: The mucus works to clear the virus from the body.

Other signs and symptoms of a cold in children:

  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Low fever (101 to 102 degrees F)
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat

Because colds and allergies have many symptoms in common, it's not always easy to tell them apart.

A general rule of thumb: If your child gets better after a week to 10 days, it's most likely a cold. If their symptoms persist longer and/or seem to come on after exposure to certain substances or during seasonal changes, allergies are probably to blame.

Other Respiratory Tract Infections

Viral respiratory tract infections like influenza (the flu) may also cause a runny nose, especially in younger children. While this is less common with the flu than the common cold, it serves the same purpose—to rid the body of the virus.

Other signs of a viral respiratory infection include a stuffy nose, cough, and a scratchy throat.

The viruses that cause the flu and common cold spread when children come into contact with nasal secretions of an infected person and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth. That is why handwashing and other good hygiene habits are so important to preventing the spread of viruses.

Deviated Septum

A deviated septum occurs when the bone and cartilage that separates the nasal cavity (called the septum) is displaced to one side, causing one nasal passage to be narrower than the other.

A crooked septum can interfere with proper mucus drainage from the sinuses, resulting in chronic runny nose and/or postnasal drip.

Some people are born with a deviated septum; others develop the condition through a fall or other injury. While a deviated septum rarely requires treatment, some children with severe symptoms may benefit from septoplasty—surgery to reshape or repair the septum.

Nonallergic Rhinitis

While nonallergic rhinitis shares many symptoms with allergic rhinitis, it has different triggers.

Instead of an infection or allergy, nonallergic rhinitis is caused by something that irritates or stimulates the nose.

Some environmental nonallergic rhinitis triggers include:

  • Bright lights (stimulation of the nerves in the eyes excites those in the nasal passages)
  • Barometric pressure changes
  • Cool, dry air
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Perfumes
  • Spicy foods

In most of these situations, the trigger stimulates the nasal passages, which results in the body producing more mucus. Though that may not be functionally beneficial in most cases (e.g., it can't clear spicy foods from your system), the body responds this way as a defense mechanism.

Note that everyone responds to potential triggers differently, and the reason why a certain trigger may result in a runny nose isn't always clear.

To prevent nonallergic rhinitis symptoms and discomfort, help your child avoid the environmental factors and substances that seem to trigger their reactions.

Sinusitis

The sinuses are the sets of hollow spaces located around the eyes, nose, and forehead. If a person has a cold or allergies, the sinuses can become inflamed, producing more mucus than usual. If that mucus can't drain effectively, sinuses may become blocked.

Germs that are trapped in the sinuses can lead to sinusitis or a sinus infection. Sinusitis symptoms include fever, green nasal discharge, and a headache.

If you are treating your child's pain from sinusitis, do not use aspirin. Try Children's Advil (ibuprofen) or Children's Tylenol (acetaminophen) instead. Aspirin is not safe for children of any age due to the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious condition that causes swelling in the brain and liver.

How to Stop a Runny Nose

Your child's runny nose can be more than just a nuisance. Viruses spread via droplets in sneezes, coughs, and drippy noses. Given how hard it can be stop a child from touching their face or mouth, kids can very easily spread germs to others.

To stop your child's runny nose, choose a treatment that targets the underlying cause, whether it is allergies or an infection. Treatments that target specific nasal symptoms can offer some relief for little runny noses as well.

Antihistamines

Children with a mild runny nose and other allergy symptoms may find relief with antihistamine medications. These medications block histamine, the substance the body releases during an allergic reaction.

Over-the-counter (OTC) options include Dimetapp Children's Cold & Allergy (phenylephrine and brompheniramine maleate), which includes both an antihistamine and decongestant, and Benadryl Allergy (diphenhydramine), which is just an antihistamine. Both medications are safe for ages 6 and older.

Children's Benadryl Allergy Plus Congestion is suitable for ages 4 and up, and Children's Benadryl Allergy is appropriate for ages 2 and older.

Another OTC option is the nasal spray Astepro (azelastine hydrochloride). This steroid-free nonprescription medication is approved to treat seasonal allergies and allergic rhinitis in people ages 6 and up.

Keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend products containing antihistamines or decongestants for children ages 2 and under because of the risk of certain side effects including rapid heartbeat and convulsions. Always talk to your pediatrician about the best medication or treatment approach for your child's symptoms.

Nasal Irrigation

Neti pots and other nasal irrigation systems can ease cold and allergy symptoms by using saline to moisten nasal passages and flush out congested sinuses. This treatment option is safe for all ages.

Always use sterile water and bulbs, syringes, and bottles that have been thoroughly cleaned.

Decongestants

Decongestants offer relief for runny and stuffy noses for older children. Sudafed Children's Nasal Decongestant Liquid (pseudoephedrine) and Children’s Mucinex Stuffy Nose & Cold (guaifenesin and phenylephrine) are two options you can find over the counter at your local drugstore.

Corticosteroids

Nasal corticosteroid sprays reduce inflammation and symptoms of allergies and nonallergenic rhinitis. Recommended ages for different products vary, so check the labels before using.

Some OTC options include:

  • Children's Flonase Sensimist (fluticasone furoate), for ages 2 and up
  • Nasacort (triamcinolone acetonide), for ages 2 and up
  • Rhinocort (budesonide), for ages 6 and up

Two effective prescription options are:

  • Nasonex (mometasone furoate monohydrate), for ages 2 and up
  • Omvaris (ciclesonide), for ages 6 and up

An FDA public health advisory about children's cold and cough syrups states: "Questions have been raised about the safety of these products and whether the benefits justify any potential risks from the use of these products in children, especially in children under 2 years of age."

Warnings on cold and cough syrups now say that they shouldn't be given to children under the age of 4. Consult your child's doctor before giving any over-the-counter medication, even if your child has taken it before. 

A Word From Verywell

Your child's runny nose can have several causes. There are many common conditions that cause a runny nose. Your pediatrician is always the best person to diagnose your child and come up with a treatment plan. Always speak with a doctor about your child's symptoms and before beginning any new treatment for a runny nose.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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