What is catarrh and how to get rid of it

Catarrh is a build-up of mucus in an airway or cavity in your body, such as the sinuses, nose and throat1. It’s often temporary and can be caused by a cold, infection, nasal polyps, hay fever and other allergies2

Post nasal drip is commonly associated with catarrh. This is when excess mucus drips from the back of the nose into the throat. The two have similar symptoms, causes and treatments3

Catarrh isn’t harmful, but it can be irritating if mucus in your throat won’t go away and you’re constantly trying to clear it4. Decongestants and other treatments can help provide relief from these uncomfortable symptoms5.

Learn more about what catarrh is, its causes, symptoms and treatments.

Symptoms of catarrh and post nasal drip

Catarrh and post nasal drip symptoms can be annoying and uncomfortable to live with, as you may feel like there’s mucus in your throat that won’t go away.

Constant throat clearing to try and get rid of this is a common sign of catarrh and post nasal drip6. This may result in a persistent cough, which can get worse at night, affecting your sleep and making you feel tired7

Depending on where the mucus builds up, it may also lead to an ear or sinus infection8.

Some other common catarrh symptoms can include9:

  • A blocked, stuffy and/or runny nose.
  • Headache and/or pains in your face.
  • It feels like mucus is stuck in your throat and running down the back.
  • A reduced sense of smell and taste.
  • Temporary hearing loss and a crackling in your ear.
  • Sore, scratchy throat with a hoarse voice10.

While some of these symptoms can overlap with other conditions, if it feels like mucus is stuck in your throat, nose and chest  and you don’t have any other signs of a common cold or allergies, it may be due to catarrh or post nasal drip.

Post nasal drip

Post nasal drip and catarrh are closely linked, with many of the same symptoms and treatments. In some cases, the terms are used interchangeably. But there is a difference – mainly that catarrh can affect airways and cavities other than your nose and throat (such as your ears)11

What is post nasal drip?

Post nasal drip is when your body produces thicker mucus than normal or more of it, and you can notice it running down the back of your nose and into your throat12.

Mucus production is perfectly healthy, as the glands in your nose, throat and airways produce it to moisten these areas and get rid of bacteria and viruses before they can cause an infection13.

Normally, a small amount of mucus mixed with saliva drips down your throat and you swallow it without realising14. But if you feel like you have constant phlegm in your throat, then it may be a sign of post nasal drip.

 

Symptoms of post nasal drip can include15:

  • Constantly clearing your throat of mucus.
  • Coughing that won’t go away and gets worse at night.
  • A hoarse, sore and scratchy throat.
  • Bad breath.
  • Nausea from excess mucus.

 

What causes post nasal drip?

The causes of post nasal drip are similar to those of catarrh. These include allergies, a viral infection (such as a cold or flu) and sinus infections16. Certain foods, cold temperatures, weather changes and dry air can also trigger it.

Sometimes excess mucus isn’t the cause of post nasal drip. It can also be because throat or nose can’t drain and clear regular mucus production properly. This could be due to a deviated septum, problems swallowing or gastric reflux17.

 

Catarrh and post nasal drip treatment

In many cases, catarrh and post nasal drip should pass in a few days or weeks when the underlying cause or condition starts to clear up18.

However, the symptoms may still be uncomfortable and tiring – whether it’s trying to clear the constant phlegm in your throat or the irritation of a blocked nose. There are a few things you can try to soothe and relieve many of these symptoms while waiting for the condition that’s causing your catarrh to clear up.

As the symptoms of post nasal drip and catarrh are similar, many of the same treatments can help to ease them. Some potential treatments include19:

  • Avoiding triggers for your catarrh and post nasal drip symptoms – such as allergens and smoky environments.
  • Sipping cold water rather than coughing, as throat clearing could make symptoms worse.
  • Using a saline nasal rinse, such as SUDAFED® Natural Relief Spray, a few times each day – or creating your own by putting half a teaspoon of salt in a pint of boiling water, then leaving to cool before rinsing your nose with it.
  • Staying away from warm, dry atmospheres where possible – such as rooms with air conditioning or close to car heaters.
  • Placing plants or bowls of water in warm, dry rooms where you spend a lot of time to increase the humidity.
  • Keeping well hydrated throughout the day. 

If you experience chronic catarrh that lasts for a few months or longer, or it becomes hard to live with, then speak to your GP20. They may identify an underlying cause, such as nasal polyps or allergies, and refer you for specialist treatment21.  

You should also seek medical attention if your catarrh or post nasal drip symptoms include22:

  • A high fever.
  • Mucus that contains blood or has a foul smell.
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath.

What causes catarrh and post nasal drip?

The main catarrh causes are triggered by your immune system reacting to an infection or irritant23. This can lead to the lining of your nose and throat swelling up and producing excess mucus that drips down the back of your throat.

Common triggers and causes of post nasal drip and catarrh can include:

There are also other potential causes of post nasal drip and catarrh that aren’t related to infections or allergies. These may include24:

  • Hormone changes during puberty, pregnancy or from using oral contraceptives.
  • Environmental factors such as weather changes, being surrounded by smoke, fumes, smog and pollution.
  • Problems with nasal structure such as a deviated septum, which can cause problems with mucus drainage.
  • Certain spicy foods that increase mucus production.

The exact causes of chronic catarrh aren’t clear. Medical experts don’t believe they’re related to allergies or infection, instead it could be due to an increased sensitivity to mucus or if it travels abnormally within the nose25.

Foods that may cause catarrh

When we eat, our bodies produce saliva to help us chew, swallow and digest food26. Producing mucus is also a sign your body’s working as it should. It normally mixes with saliva to drip down your throat without being noticed.

However, research has linked eating some foods with excess or thick mucus which may cause catarrh and post nasal drip27. Spicy foods in particular could increase mucus production and lead to symptoms of catarrh28

Eating foods that you’re allergic to could be one reason for producing more mucus than usual29. It’s the same for certain ingredients, even if you’re not allergic to them.

Research has shown foods that cause catarrh can include30:

  • Dairy products – milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter and eggs.
  • Breads, pasta and cereal.
  • Fruit and vegetables – bananas, cabbage, potatoes.
  • Corn and corn products.
  • Soy products.
  • Sweets and desserts.
  • Drinks – tea, coffee, soda and alcoholic beverages.
  • Red meat.

Just as there are foods that are thought to cause catarrh, there are also various foods and drinks that could help reduce your mucus production31.

Whether you want to prevent catarrh coming on or cut your mucus production to relieve symptoms, these foods may help32:

  • Fish – salmon, tuna, sardines and flounder.
  • Fruits – grapefruit, pineapple, lemon, pumpkin (and pumpkin seeds).
  • Roots – celery, ginger, onion and garlic.
  • Watercress.
  • Pickles.
  • Honey or agar.
  • Cayenne pepper.
  • Chamomile.
  • Olive oil.
  • Broth.
  • Decaffeinated tea

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