When blood is suddenly streaming out of your nostrils, it can be hard not to panic—but if you know how to stop a nosebleed, the situation becomes a lot less stressful. Even if you aren’t a “person who gets nosebleeds,” having this first aid skill in your back pocket can be helpful if one surprises you (or someone nearby) someday.
About 60% of people experience at least one nosebleed in their life—so, yeah, they’re pretty common! And as off-putting as they might be in the moment, the vast majority aren’t serious: Only 10% of all nosebleeds, which are clinically known as epistaxis, are severe enough to require medical treatment.1 So, given that you’re going to be handling most of them on your own, what can you do to stop a nosebleed fast? Here’s everything you need to know if one makes an inconvenient appearance and threatens to ruin your day (or your shirt).
Not all nosebleeds are created equal—there are two types, and one is way more serious than the other.
A nosebleed happens when the small blood vessels that line the inside of your nose break. There are two types: anterior and posterior. You probably won’t be thinking about the kind of nosebleed you have when the blood is flowing, but knowing the difference is important because one can be treated at home, and the other requires medical attention.
Anterior nosebleeds occur when blood vessels break in the front part of your nose. Because there are so many blood vessels there, you might lose a lot of blood—which can feel and look scarier than it really is. Anterior nosebleeds are the most common type, usually involve one nostril, and can often be treated at home in just a few minutes—phew!
A posterior nosebleed happens when larger blood vessels, deeper in the back part of your nose, break.1 This situation is generally more serious than an anterior nosebleed because the blood can travel to your throat and even down into your stomach, potentially leading to nausea. If you’re losing large amounts of blood and quickly soaking through multiple tissues, unable to stop the bleeding yourself, bleeding from both nostrils, or are swallowing or coughing up blood,1 you could have a posterior nosebleed, and you should go to the emergency room.
What are some common causes of nosebleeds?
Nosebleeds can happen for lots of reasons, and some people deal with them way more often than others do.
Inna A. Husain, MD, an otolaryngologist and medical director of laryngology at Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana, tells SELF that this comes down to anatomy in some cases: People with deviated septums, in which the cartilage between both nostrils is crooked, may get more frequent nosebleeds. If you have a blood clotting disorder, like hemophilia or von Willebrand disease, you also might be more likely to have them. Beyond these risk factors, here are some of the most common causes:
- Dry air: Low moisture and humidity are the most common causes of nosebleeds. Dry, hot air can parch the nasal membranes (a.k.a. the soft tissue inside your nostrils), making them more susceptible to cracking and bleeding. Dr. Husain says she sees lots of people with nosebleeds in chillier seasons when the humidity tends to be lower.
- Getting injured (or picking your nose): Some nosebleeds occur when a person has physical trauma to the face, like if they’re hit with a soccer ball or get in a car accident. Nosebleeds caused by injuries are common among children—they can even happen from picking your nose too aggressively, which kids famously love to do.
- Inflammation and irritation: Your nose can become inflamed or irritated (a reaction that’s medically known as rhinitis) because of allergies, infections, and poor air quality, Dr. Husain says. Common illnesses can also mess with your nose. “When people have colds or the flu and there’s inflammation or irritation in the nose, that can make the blood vessels in that area a little bit more fragile,” Chantel Strachan, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells SELF.
- Medications: Nosebleeds are more common among people who take or use certain medications, like nasal steroid sprays, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or blood thinners.1,2
- Pregnancy: Hormonal changes and an increase in the amount of blood circulating throughout the body can cause blood vessels to expand, making nosebleeds more likely. Somewhere around 20% of pregnant people experience a nosebleed at some point.5
- High altitudes: At high altitudes, less oxygen means drier air. If you’re a hiker, you fly on planes a lot, or you live somewhere far above sea level, you might be more prone to getting a nosebleed on your adventures, per the Cleveland Clinic.
- Recreational drugs: On a very different note, snorting recreational drugs like cocaine can irritate the lining of the nose and contribute to nosebleeds. 1,3
- Nasal or sinus surgery: If you’ve had sinus surgery and are experiencing nosebleeds, let your doctor know, Dr. Husain says. They can check to make sure your blood vessels aren’t damaged from the procedure. If you’ve recently undergone rhinoplasty to change the shape or size of your nose, you might also experience post-op nosebleeds.