It’s a scenario we can probably all relate to: you’re in a quiet room, and you need to clear your throat. But then, you need to do it again. And again. It’s embarrassing, uncomfortable, and — worst of all — could signal an underlying health issue. But constant post-nasal drip is pretty poorly understood, and many people just live with it without thinking twice. Read on to learn what it might mean if you have a constant need to clear your throat, why it matters, and how you can find post-nasal drip relief naturally.
What’s Happening When You Clear Your Throat
So, it all comes down to mucus. Mucus is a thick, wet substance produced by the membranes that line your digestive tract, all the way from your nostrils down to your stomach and intestines. This mucus is very important and helpful, as it helps protect your body from all the allergens, dust, viruses, and other particles that you’re constantly breathing in.
Normally, when you inhale, the mucus acts as a filter, trapping any harmful substances before they can get into your body and cause problems. The invaders are expelled, and then the mucus mixes with saliva and you swallow it without noticing.
But sometimes, your body produces too much mucus. That excess mucus can come out your nostrils, causing a runny nose. But it can also settle in the back of your throat, which is a condition you’ve probably heard of, called post-nasal drip. Post-nasal drip creates an uncomfortable feeling, and your body instinctively tries to get rid of it by vibrating the muscles of the throat to remove the mucus — aka clearing your throat.
Why You Might Have a Constant Need to Clear Your Throat
Clearing your throat seems like such a normal, everyday occurrence that most people don’t think twice about it. But the need to clear your throat doesn’t come out of nowhere, so there’s always going to be some underlying cause. Often this underlying cause is pretty benign, but sometimes it’s not. Either way, it’s worth looking into.
Here are some of the common reasons you might have a constant need to clear your throat:
- Allergies. If you’re allergic to something in your environment, it can cause excess mucus and post-nasal drip.
- A virus or infection. This can be anything from a common cold to strep throat to mono or a sinus infection. The key here is that it’s an acute issue usually accompanied by other symptoms beyond just having to clear your throat.
- Asthma. People with asthma tend to cough frequently, which can then irritate the larynx and pharynx, creating the urge to clear your throat.
- Dehydration. Not drinking enough water or drinking too many diuretic substances, like caffeine or alcohol, can cause your throat to dry out, creating irritation.
- A lung condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or bronchitis
- Dry air. Dry indoor air, which is really common in the winter, can be irritating to your throat, causing you to produce more mucus.
- Environmental pollutants. Poor air quality means more particulate matter for your mucus to filter, which can mean more mucus.
- Smoking. The act of smoking involves inhaling lots of tiny particles each time you take a puff, which will obviously have repercussions for your throat.
- Certain medications, especially high blood pressure medications.
- A tic. For some people, a constant need to clear your throat is a nervous tic. One study found that chronic throat clearing is one of the five most common symptoms of tic disorders.
Dietary Causes of Constant Post-Nasal Drip
With the throat-clearing causes we listed above, it’s probably pretty clear how those behaviors or conditions can create extra mucus in your throat. That’s probably why these are the things that people think of when they find themselves with constant post-nasal drip. But many of the above explanations don’t get at the real root cause of having to clear your throat. Our bodies are much more complex than you might realize, and it turns out that your throat-clearing can be (and often is) related to something going on with your diet and digestion.
The main culprit here is acid reflux, when acid from the stomach works its way back up the intestinal tract. There are two types of acid reflux, GERD and LPR. I’ll explain them both below, but only one of them can cause constant post-nasal drip, and the other is far more common and widely known. For this reason, people generally don’t think about reflux when they find themselves with a throat tickle that won’t go away.
First, the more widely known type of acid reflux is gastrointestinal reflux disease, or GERD. This refers to a condition when acid from the stomach moves back up your digestive tract and into the esophagus, aka our “food pipe” that connects the throat to the stomach. This is the type of reflux that causes heartburn (the burning sensation in your chest) and it’s what you see on commercials for PPIs like Prilosec or Nexium.
Then there’s laryngopharyngeal reflux, or LPR. This is the lesser-known reflux, and also the kind of reflux that can create constant post-nasal drip. LPR occurs when undigested matter from the stomach travels up the esophagus and all the way to the larynx and pharynx, two passageways that we collectively think of as our throat. Once this stomach matter gets up there, it causes irritation, creating the constant need to clear your throat without any of the other symptoms typically associated with reflux. Because of this, it’s also sometimes referred to as “silent reflux.”
There are various potential reasons that a person might develop LPR. Oftentimes, the issue is acidic foods, which can be inflammatory. Some people can process them just fine, but for others, eating acidic foods like citrus, vinegar, and wine can wreak havoc. In our interview with ENT Dr. Jonathan Aviv, he shares the top 12 acidic foods to avoid, as well as what you should eat if you’re having acid-related reflux (or if you have to clear your throat a lot and think it may be related to an acidic diet).
In other cases, the issue might be a food sensitivity or allergy rather than acid. If your body has trouble tolerating, say, dairy or gluten, then it can leave those compounds undigested and push them back up from where they came.
It’s also important to note that these two types of reflux don’t live in isolation from one another. While GERD doesn’t cause post-nasal drip or throat irritation, it could be a potential precursor. According to one review, up to 60% of people with GERD eventually develop LPR.
Serious Health Consequences of Constant Post-Nasal Drip
Having the constant need to clear your throat is very, very, very annoying — both to the person clearing their throat and everyone around them. Unfortunately, that’s the least of the potential problems associated with chronic post-nasal drip. Left untreated, constant post-nasal drip can lead to various health complications, from the concerning to the very scary.
First off, chronic throat-clearing creates a vicious cycle. Even though you clear your throat to be able to speak more clearly, doing so is actually really hard on your vocal cords. It creates short-term relief, but it’s actually causing as much irritation as it gets rid of. Clearing your throat causes unnecessary wear and tear on your delicate vocal folds as well as swelling that produces even more saliva that you then want to get rid of by clearing your throat again. This all means that if you clear your throat a lot, you’re much more likely to have a constant need to clear your throat. Ugh.
Other potential complications include a plugged up Eustachian tube, which connects your throat to your middle ear. If your Eustachian tube gets clogged with mucus, it can make it difficult to hear and also throw off your balance, while also causing a serious ear infection. Likewise, clogged sinuses can cause a painful sinus infection.
Natural Approaches to Post-Nasal Drip Relief
If you do a quick Google search for post-nasal drip relief, the results are filled with various OTC and prescription medications. We tend to avoid these, not only because of the scary documented side effects, but also because they don’t treat the underlying issue.
Of course, in order to treat constant post-nasal drip, you need to have an understanding of what’s going on. Is it an allergy? A cold? Reflux? You can get to the bottom of this by working with a holistic practitioner or functional medicine doctor, or even by doing some experimentation on your own. In terms of long-term lifestyle changes that can help offer post-nasal drip relief (and are also just good for your health overall), here’s what we recommend:
- Change your diet. Everyone’s specific food sensitivities will be unique to their bodies, but there are some foods and drinks that tend to be more irritating and inflammatory than others. Research has shown that a Mediterranean diet has been effective in treating LPR, but you can also just make some changes to your normal diet. Generally, avoiding overly spicy, fatty, sugary, or acidic foods is a good call, as well as exercising moderation around caffeine and alcohol (or depending on the severity of your symptoms, giving them up altogether to see if symptoms subside). You can also keep a food diary to try to pinpoint any foods to which you might be allergic or have a sensitivity.
- Adjust your eating schedule. If reflux is the root of your constant post-nasal drip, try to make sure that you avoid eating or drinking within three hours of lying down at night. When you’re lying down, it’s much more difficult for your body to push food down the digestive tract. When you’re sitting or standing up, gravity can help the process.
- Fix your gut health. Your digestive tract is just another term for your gut, so if you’re having reflux-related post-nasal drip, your gut health is off. Changing your diet is part of improving gut health, but not all of it. Get our free gut health guide for a comprehensive look at what affects gut health and how you can improve yours naturally.
- Avoid irritants. Environmental pollutants can be a huge trigger for post-nasal drip. While you can’t do a ton about the outdoor air quality where you live, you can try your best to avoid spaces that have known irritants as well as install a high-quality air filter or air purifier in your home.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight is associated with reflux, so losing weight or working to maintain a healthy weight can help you avoid constant post-nasal drip and other symptoms and health problems associated with GERD or LPR.
- Quit smoking. This probably goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: if you smoke, it’s time to quit.
- Stay hydrated. Good hydration keeps your throat and esophagus lubricated, making it easier to clear out any excess mucus and prevent it from settling at the back of your throat. You can also use a humidifier while indoors to further help avoid dehydration.
In terms of short-term post-nasal drip relief, there are some more physical natural home remedies you can use. Because humidity can help, try taking a steamy shower or standing over a pot of steaming water with a towel draped over your head (it’s like a mini steam room!). Gargling with warm salt water can also be effective, helping to clear mucus and perhaps even killing germs if you think it’s more infection-related post-nasal drip. If reflux is the root cause, try propping up your head and neck with pillows at night so that you’re sleeping at an angle. This elevation will help the mucus return down your throat and esophagus and into your stomach.
The WellBe Takeaway: What Causes Constant Post-Nasal Drip and What to Do About It
Having the constant need to clear your throat is a big bummer. It’s also a very misunderstood condition, very common, and one that might have serious health implications. Here’s what you need to know and remember about post-nasal drip:
- Mucus is your friend. The membranes in our digestive tract produce mucus in order to trap and filter out harmful bacteria, allergens, and other particulate matter that we inhale on a daily basis.
- When we produce too much mucus for whatever reason, it can settle in the back of your throat, a condition called post-nasal drip. Post-nasal drip is what creates the constant need to clear your throat.
- There are a ton of potential causes of post-nasal drip, including: allergies, asthma, an infection (common cold, sinus infection, strep, mono, etc), smoking, indoor irritants, dehydration, certain medications, or even a nervous tic.
- Diet can also be a big cause of post-nasal drip. When you eat food that is overly acidic, or food that you are allergic or sensitive to, it can get pushed back up the digestive tract, which is known as reflux. If the food makes it all the way up to your throat, a condition known as laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), it can cause chronic throat-clearing.
- Constant post-nasal drip can lead to or be a sign of more serious conditions, from a blocked Eustachian tube to an ear or sinus infection to certain cancers.
- There are various natural approaches to post-nasal drip relief. Depending on what the root cause of the issue is, you may try changing your diet, staying hydrated, investing in an air purifier, avoiding irritants, losing weight, or quitting smoking. But our money’s on your diet, and our interview with Dr. Jonathan Aviv explains much more about why.
Have you ever struggled with a constant need to clear your throat? What did you do (or are you doing) to treat it? Share your experience in the comments below.
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- Llewellyn A, Norman G, Harden M, et al. Interventions for adult Eustachian tube dysfunction: a systematic review. Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; 2014 Jul. (Health Technology Assessment, No. 18.46.) Chapter 1, Background.