Patients Detail Horrors of Nasal Spray Dependency

Dana Conte was 13-years-old when a doctor suggested she use an over-the-counter, decongestant nasal spray, similar to Afrin, as a way to relieve her allergy symptoms.

For the first few days, the product worked and Conte felt great. So, she kept using the product.

But the longer she used it, the worse she felt.

“The only thing it did was make me more stuffy,” said Conte, now 36, a bartender who lives in Brooklyn. “I’d have relief for about five minutes and then I’d be even more stuffed up than I was before. I noticed I was dependent on it about six months later," she revealed in an interview with

Conte’s dependence on over-the-counter nasal sprays isn’t unique, according to medical experts.

Essentially, the more Conte used the nasal spray, the more she experienced a rebound in symptoms, and the more Conte thought she needed to use it.

Click here to watch a video about nasal spray dependency.

“I’d go somewhere and if it wasn’t in my bag, I’d freak out,” Conte said. “I had a very big problem. My parents would say, ‘Do you really need it that bad?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do.' ”

As her usage of the nasal spray increased, the more Conte felt jittery and thirsty, just a few of the many negative side effects that are caused by nasal spray dependencies.

Over-the-counter nasal spray dependencies begin when the patient notices the quick relief it provides to their allergy symptoms, said Dr. Clifford Bassett, vice chair of the Public Education Committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Because the patient feels quick relief, they often continue to use the product even after the recommended three to five days of usage.

Soon, the nasal spray will cause the patient to experience rebound symptoms, prompting them to feel the need to continue using the product, Bassett said.

Thus, a vicious cycle begins and the negative side effects start to appear: a swollen nose, shrinking of the nose’s blood vessels, nosebleeds and sometimes even a reduction in the sensations of smell or taste.

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Bassett, who has a private practice in New York City, treats Conte for her allergies. Conte now uses a combination of steroidal nasal sprays and allergy shots to combat her allergies.

Another of Bassett’s patients, Michelle Jason, also had a similar experience. She was in her 20s when she began using over-the-counter decongestant nasal sprays to relieve her allergy symptoms – and it wasn’t too long before she too had to carry it in her purse, everywhere she went.

“I didn’t think I was addicted,” said Jason, 41, a Manhattan-based real estate agent. “But, I needed it all the time. At the height of allergy season, I was using it at least four times a day.”

That’s when the nosebleeds and headaches started to occur, which made Jason all the more uncomfortable. She continued using the over-the-counter nasal sprays until a doctor told her she had to treat the root of the problem, not just the symptoms.

“Just because it is an over-the-counter medicine, doesn’t mean you don’t have to consult with your doctor,” Bassett told

Bassett said steroid nasal sprays, such as Rhinacort or Veramyst, which can only be obtained by a doctor’s prescription, are safer to use than over-the-counter sprays.

“The steroid sprays reduce inflammation in the nose and sinus cavity,” Bassett said. “It’ll help with sneezing and runny noses." Some begin to work in as little as 12 hours and "can be taken everyday, also as preventative," Basset added.

Saline nasal sprays are also completely safe and do not cause rebound congestion, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Over-the-counter nasal sprays don’t contain any habit-forming ingredients, and they don’t cause the compulsive cravings that mark an addiction,” wrote Dr. James Li, a Mayo Clinic allergy and asthma specialist, on the Clinic’s Web site. “However, it is possible to develop a tolerance to nasal sprays.”

Both Li and Bassett said nasal spray dependency can be treated and the tolerance reversed, but the patient has to first recognize the signs and talk to a health care provider.