12/09/2013 04:43 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

What Does A Nasal Spray Do?

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We reach for the nasal spray when we develop that nasty, congested feel. You know the one; your nose is clogged, you can't breathe, and your sinuses feel as if they’re on fire.

A nasal spray is a quick way to deliver medication into your body, or if you're using a salt water spray, a quick way to decongest your nose.

Using a nasal spray can ease your cold symptoms, but what exactly does it do after you’ve put your spray to good use? Let’s find out!

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What’s in a spray?

There are different types of sprays: salt-water solutions, decongestants, and antihistamines. Salt water sprays don't contain medication and can be used as often as needed. They can loosen mucus and ease mild congestion, making it easier to breathe.

Decongestant sprays have medication in them and can be bought over-the-counter, or prescribed by a physician. They are used to relieve cold and allergy symptoms.

Unlike salt water sprays, you are limited to the number of times you can use decongestants in a 24-hour period. These sprays can temporarily decrease swelling of the tissues in your nose and sinuses, opening your nasal passages and allowing you to breathe easier.

Antihistamine sprays are used by people with allergies. The spray delivers medication to the receptor sites, blocking the function of histamines. This results in the reduction of histamines that cause a runny nose and the inflammation that results when trying to fight off the allergic substance (pollen, dirt, ragweed, animal dander.)

How to use them

It sounds easy; just stick the nozzle in your nose, spray, and forget about it. It's a bit more complicated than that. With a medicated spray, the goal is have the medication absorbed into the body via the lining of the nose (remember those blood vessels), not draining down your throat.

So after you blow your nose (the spray needs a clear path and access to your nasal passages) and wash your hands (always), tilt your head forward, not back.

Then close one nostril and insert the tip of the nozzle into the open nostril, breathe in slowly, and squirt once. Do it gently so it hits the lining and doesn't overshoot into your throat. Reapply if prescribed.

With a saline nasal wash, the process is different. Because of the high volume of liquid being sent through your spray, you should lean sideways over a sink and use the solution until you feel sweet, sweet relief.

What happens after you spray

If you use a salt water spray, the easing of your symptoms can vary depending on the severity of your cold. The salt water does wash away mucus build up and bacteria and virus particles from your nose, which can reduce your symptoms. It's why we're told to gargle with salt water when we have a sore throat.

If you're using a medicated decongestant, you can experience relief of your symptoms within minutes of using the spray.


Don't assume that because salt water is a mild disinfectant, you don't have to keep your nozzle clean. You're dealing with a virus, which means bacteria -- so, clean your tools.

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that you blow your nose before using your spray, and to avoid blowing it afterwards. Make sure to shake the bottle before using it, and to also squirt it into the air a few times, until a fine mist comes out. Also, always check your medication to ensure it hasn't expired. If it has, dispose of it in a safe way.

And as always, use the medication only as described on the product labeling.