Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
April 10, 2024 ·  3 min read

Chronic Blocked Nose? Research Links It to Changes in Brain Activity

Do you have a chronic blocked nose? If so, you are one of 11% of people in the United States who do. Chronic sinusitis is no fun. It causes headaches, difficulty focusing, and even depression. Now, science has finally discovered that this chronic information might actually affect the brain. (1)

Chronic Blocked Nose Alters Brain Activity

Having a chronically blocked nose means that you have consistent sinus inflammation. Research links this with changes to the neural pathways that control cognition, introspection, and response to external stimuli. Called chronic rhinosinusitis, this condition often requires treatment over several years. Usually, treatment protocol involves antibiotics but can require surgery if it is severe enough. Though there have been several studies done on the effects of chronic rhinosinusitis, this is the first that connects it to changes to the brain. (1)

“We know from previous studies that patients who have sinusitis often decide to seek medical care not because they have a runny nose and sinus pressure, but because the disease is affecting how they interact with the world: They can’t be productive, thinking is difficult, sleep is lousy. It broadly impacts their quality of life. Now we have a prospective mechanism for what we observe clinically.” said Dr. Aria Jafari, surgeon and assistant professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. (1)

How The Study Worked

Using data from the Human Connectome Project, the researchers identified 22 people with moderate to severe chronic sinusitis and a 22-person control group. They analyzed functional MRI scans, which revealed those with a chronic blocked nose (2):

  • Decreased functional connectivity in the frontoparietal network, the section of the brain responsible for executive function, maintaining attention, and problem-solving.
  • Increased functional connectivity to two nodes in the default-mode network, which influences self-reference and is active during wakeful rest and day-dreaming.
  • Decreased functional connectivity in the salience network, which is involved in detecting and integrating external stimuli, communication, and social behavior.

They then performed behavioral and cognitive tests on all participants. Despite the physiological brain changes, there were no significant differences in test results. The researchers think that perhaps these deficits will become more prevalent over time and that they also may be precursors to other conditions. (2)

“The participants with moderate and severe sinus inflammation were young individuals who did not show clinically significant signs of cognitive impairment. However, their brain scans told us a different story: The subjective feelings of attention decline, difficulties to focus or sleep disturbances that a person with sinus inflammation experiences might be associated with subtle changes in how brain regions controlling these functions communicate with one another,” said co-author Dr. Kristina Simonyan. (1)

More Meaningful Symptoms If The Chronic Blocked Nose Is Left Untreated

Dr. Simonyan says that the alterations to the brain may cause more clinically meaningful symptoms if left untreated. She says that sinus inflammations might be a precursor or early marker for cognitive decline. More research needs to be done, specifically on those who have been clinically diagnosed with chronic sinusitis. (1)

“It might involve scanning patients’ brains, then providing typical treatment for sinus disease with medication or surgery, and then scanning again afterward to see if their brain activity had changed. Or we could look for inflammatory molecules or markers in patients’ bloodstreams,” says Dr. Jafari. (1)

For now, the researchers say that this information will allow ear, nose, and throat specialists to be more aware of the stress that a chronic blocked nose causes their patients. This will allow them to treat the physical symptoms of the problem and address the mental, emotional, and psychological side as well. (1)


  1. Chronic sinus inflammation appears to alter brain activity.” Newsroom. April 8, 2021.
  2. Association of Sinonasal Inflammation With Functional Brain Connectivity.” JAMA Network. Aria Jafari, MD, et al. April 8, 2021.