Avoid Sinus Infection... Naturally
Murray Grossan, MD
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
Special from Bottom Line/Retirement
May 1, 2003
B elieve it or not, sinus infection, which affects 37 million Americans each year, is more prevalent today than it was in the pre-antibiotic age!
That's not to say that antibiotics aren't effective. When sinusitis (the technical name for a sinus infection) occurs, treatment with antibiotics is often essential to kill the infectious bacteria.
Decongestants can help relieve sinusitis symptoms. So can oral or topical steroids (to combat sinus inflammation) and antihistamines, if underlying allergies are involved.
Increasingly, doctors are realizing that to successfully fight off sinus infection and prevent it from recurring, medication alone isn't enough. You also have to ensure that the mucous membranes lining your nasal and sinus passages are healthy and functioning properly.
Sinusitis occurs when the mucous membranes in your nose and sinuses become irritated by a cold, allergy, pollutants or exposure to dry or cold air. This irritation causes the membranes to become inflamed. When this happens, the motion of the cilia (the tiny hairs that coat the mucous membranes and are responsible for moving mucus over their surfaces) slows down. At the same time, the irritation stimulates your mucous glands to secrete more mucus than usual to dilute the bacteria.
Result: Mucus gets trapped in the sinuses, where it can easily become infected because the swelling meant to dilute the bacteria now blocks the sinus openings, and prevents the body from washing away the bacteria. Symptoms of sinus infection include...
Facial pressure around the eyes, cheeks and forehead.
Cold symptoms lasting more than 10 days.
Thick, green/yellow mucus.
Postnasal drip, which occurs when excess mucus drips down the back of the throat.
Pain in the upper molars.
Fatigue and a flu-like achiness.
The following natural treatments will help keep your cilia healthy and functioning and prevent mucus from building in your sinuses. If a sinus infection does occur, these same treatments will increase the effectiveness of antibiotics and other medications -- speeding healing and making a recurrence less likely.
1. Drink hot liquids. One of the best ways to unclog sinuses is to drink hot tea -- black, green, herbal or decaffeinated, it doesn't matter -- or hot chicken soup throughout the day. Drink enough so that your urine turns light in color. These hot liquids help moisturize your mucous membranes, speeding up the movement of your cilia and thus washing mucus out of your sinuses more quickly. Sorry, java lovers, but hot coffee isn't nearly as effective.
Note to travelers: The dry air on jet liners is particularly rough on the sinuses -- so when flying, carry tea bags with you and ask the flight attendant for hot water to make tea.
2. Apply warm compresses to your face. Do this three times a day for five minutes. A small towel soaked in warm water, then placed over your face below and between the eyes, will help increase the circulation in your sinuses, which will also help speed up the movement of your cilia.
3. Irrigate your sinuses. For 3,000 years, yoga practitioners have kept their sinuses healthy through the practice of sniffing a saltwater solution rapidly in and out of their nose at low pressure. Caution: Don't try this unless you have been taught how to do it.
Fortunately, for those of us who aren't yogis, a device called the Hydro Pulse Nasal and Sinus Irrigator will do this for you. The pulsating flow from the Hydro Pulse is so gentle that even five-year-olds use it.
An even simpler alternative is a Lavage irrigation bottle. Ideally, irrigation should be done using Ringer's solution, the solution used in hospitals for intravenous treatment, and sold over the counter in drugstores. Or you can use an isotonic saline solution (not too salty, just right) that does not contain benzalkonium. Benzalkonium is a preservative that can impair nasal function and kids complain that it burns. To make your own preservative-free saline solution, add one teaspoon of table salt to one p
If you're prone to sinus infections, I recommend irrigating your sinuses twice a day, especially during the cold winter months.
Ringer's solution, designed for irrigation use, is sold under the name Breathe-ease XL (it's also available as a nasal spray). To order the Hydro Pulse Nasal and Sinus Irrigator, a Lavage irrigation bottle or Breathe-ease products, visit the Web site www.sinus-allergies.com.
4. Clear your sinuses with aromatherapy. To help open up congested nasal passages and sinuses, drop some eucalyptus or menthol oil into a bowl of hot water, then breathe the vapors -- or simply open up a jar of either and inhale the fumes directly.
Vick's VapoRub is also effective. Simply dab a bit on the skin underneath your nose.
Other aromatherapy decongestants include horseradish (grate it and put it on a sandwich) and, if you're really brave, Japanese wasabi mustard. All of these therapies work best if used a couple of times a day, especially during the winter months.
5. Take breakfast in bed. When you sleep at night, your body temperature drops and your cilia movement slows down. By taking breakfast in bed along with a cup of hot tea, you'll give your cilia a chance to warm up and clear out the night's accumulated mucus before you start placing demands on your respiratory system.
6. Elevate your head when sleeping. Elevating your head with one or two pillows will help your sinuses and nasal passages stay open while you sleep. The more your head is elevated, the better the effect.
7. Dustproof your bedroom. Dust and dust mites can wreak havoc on your mucous membranes, especially when you're asleep and your cilia are at rest.
In your bedroom, avoid heavy drapes and wall-to-wall carpeting (which is a notorious dust-collector). Use throw rugs instead, and toss them in the washing machine at least every six weeks. Overall, make your bedroom as bare as possible, and dust all surfaces and behind furniture weekly. To further reduce dust in your bedroom, I recommend using a HEPA air purifier, and running it throughout the day. (Most people find the filter too noisy for nighttime use.)
8. Get plenty of rest. If your sinuses are acting up, you'll be amazed at how much improvement you'll see after taking the weekend off and spending it in bed. Be sure to get some mental rest at the same time. Turn off the phone and avoid the news. Instead, rent some funny videos, find a good book, lie back and enjoy. Relaxation can help the body heal.
Bottom Line/Tomorrow interviewed Murray Grossan, MD, an otolaryngologist in private practice in Los Angeles. He is coauthor of The Sinus Cure -- 7 Simple Steps to Relieve Sinusitis and Other Ear, Nose and Throat Conditions (Ballantine).