A long history of chronic sinus trouble brought a patient who I’ll call Joanne to see me. Joanne was in her mid 60s. She had raised four children while working as a paralegal and was looking forward to retiring. But she was determined to end the ongoing sinus infections she had lived with for the past 50 or so years.
“For as long as I can remember — since I was a little girl, in fact — I’ve had a runny nose, sinus headaches, and a chronic cough,” she told me. “The other doctors I’ve been to want me to take antibiotics or steroids, but whatever I take, the sinus problems come right back.”
Unfortunately, the chronic sinus problems were also making Joanne’s asthma worse. Her medications included not just antibiotics and oral and nasal medications, but a bronchodilator, as well. “My husband and I have a lot of traveling planned after I retire next year, and I don’t want to be hauling around medication or have an asthma attack in another country where I don’t speak the language. So I hope you have a magic wand to make all of this go away. Because nothing else has.”
A magic wand would be nice, but there are better, more practical ways to treat sinus problems. The first step is to understand how sinusitis happens, and then we’ll talk about what you can do to prevent that.
All About Sinuses
The sinuses are small, air-filled cavities that link the nose and throat. Their job is to prevent mucus from reaching the lungs, where it could cause infection. The sinuses are situated above the eyes, in the upper nose, alongside and behind the bridge of the nose, and inside the cheekbones.
Sinusitis occurs when the sinus linings become inflamed. There are two types of sinusitis — acute and chronic. Common colds, bacteria, or viruses can trigger acute sinusitis. On the other hand, chronic sinusitis may start with a cold, and then linger due to pollution or toxins in the air, stress, smoking, or allergies. Typically, acute cases go away within a month or so. When the symptoms drag on for twelve weeks or more, the diagnosis changes to chronic sinusitis.
Facial pain and tenderness and/or swelling in the sinus areas are common symptoms of sinusitis. Some individuals experience low-grade fever, post-nasal drip, difficulties smelling, bad-breath, breathing problems, headache, fatigue, and/or cough.
Sinusitis might seem like more of an inconvenience than a serious ailment. But the problem is, inflamed sinuses mean you’re at risk of being exposed to dangerous bacteria, toxins, viruses, and allergens because the sinuses can’t operate efficiently.
Our noses are designed to serve as high-efficiency air filters. When fully functioning, the human nose is capable of removing 80 percent of the various substances in the air. It does this by relying on tiny, hair-like fibers known as cilia in the nose. The cilia are equipped with mucous that’s loaded with substances to counteract toxins and other dangerous elements in the air.
Healthy, mucous-covered cilia are designed to catch invaders before they make themselves at home in your lungs. But inflamed sinuses weaken cilia, preventing them from removing invaders, and leaving you exposed to risk with every breath.
The Cold Facts
The first step to maintaining healthy sinuses is to avoid colds. Easier said than done, right? But take my word for it — it can be done. As a working physician, I spend most of the day with people who are sick. Years ago, I realized that, if I was going to be a doctor, my immune system had to be in top working order. So I’ve spent many hours investigating how to prevent infections like common colds. Here are some of the best methods I’ve found…
Look at Your Lifestyle
If you experience frequent colds and infections, it may be time to overhaul your lifestyle. Start by reviewing my earlier issue on immunity. Briefly, our immune systems thrive when we provide common sense support, like a nutritious, whole foods diet, plenty of high quality sleep, fresh, clean, filtered water, moderate exercise, appropriate supplements, and some form of stress management.
I’ve written about all of these things in earlier issues, and I do hope you’ll take a look at those and consider making some changes. It would be convenient to pop a pill that makes colds and sinus congestion go away, but that’s not very realistic. In fact, a recent study found that antibiotics, the most commonly prescribed treatment for colds, don’t work. Here’s why: most colds are caused by one of the many varieties of rhinovirus. Since antibiotics are designed to take on bacteria — not viruses — there’s no point in taking them for a virus-related cold.
Over-prescribing antibiotics has also led to the sort of frightening antibiotic-resistant bugs that are common today. Antibiotics destroy the friendly bacteria in our intestinal tracts. Ironically, the friendly bacteria are absolutely essential to our immune systems. So it’s very likely that antibiotics will not help with that cold, and they could make you even more vulnerable to the next one. In fact, a January 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed, once again, that antibiotics aren’t necessary for basic sinusitis.
Sleep It Off
Adequate sleep is another lifestyle issue linked to immunity. Years ago when I was an intern, I discovered that I was getting colds a few days after a busy night with very little sleep. Interestingly, research supports the connection between lack of sleep and illness, especially common colds.
If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, please revisit my issue on that subject for some helpful ideas. Sleep-supportive supplements, like melatonin, can help immensely. I’ve found that getting at least eight hours of sleep keeps my immune system functioning. But, for Joanne, it turned out that nine or ten hours did the trick.
Finding ways to minimize stress is another excellent way to promote deep, restful sleep. There are dozens of books on the topic, as well as meditation resources online that you might find helpful. Regular, moderate exercise — like a brisk, 30-minute walk — is another good way to reduce stress and improve your overall health.
Cold and Sinus Solutions
My first suggestion is a proven method for preventing colds in the first place. Simply gargle with plain water three times a day throughout cold and flu season and you’ll cut your risk of catching a cold by almost 40 percent, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
If you already have a cold or sinus infection, here’s my favorite technique for easing symptoms: the saltwater nasal rinse. It’s safe, effective, inexpensive, and relieves symptoms quickly. Saltwater rinses are available over the counter (look for “saline” on the label) or you can make your own. I’ve found that NeilMed makes a good product. But, to make your own, all you need is some water, salt (preferably sea salt), and an ordinary bulb syringe found in any drugstore.
Saltwater rinse is an excellent way to remove mucus and any particles (toxins, allergens, and other irritating substances) from your nose. This not only decreases stuffiness, but it also helps the cilia protect the lungs from invaders. To make the rinse, simply mix eight ounces of warm, filtered or distilled water (to remove chlorine that could cause a burning sensation) with 1/8 teaspoon of salt. I prefer sea salt because it contains important minerals, but you can use whatever is handy.
Fill the bulb syringe with saltwater solution. Lean over the sink and gently insert the syringe tip about 1/2″ into your nose. Do not try to force the syringe further into your nose. Point the tip of the syringe upward, toward your temple, then gently squeeze the syringe bulb. The saltwater will flow into your nostril. Allow it to drain out of your mouth or other nostril. Repeat the process on the opposite side.
If you make your own saline solution, you might try adding one teaspoon of “no tears” baby shampoo to 8 ounces of saltwater. Studies have shown that baby shampoo improved results for the majority of patients. Joanne, who was totally put off at first by the thought of using shampoo, eventually found that this version of the nasal rinse was far superior to saltwater alone.
“When you first described this to me, I thought you were joking,” she told me. “I really wasn’t prepared for how fast and how well it worked. Very impressive!”
After rinsing your nose, carefully clean the syringe by filling it with fresh water several times and squeezing the water out. When the rinse water is clear, dry the bulb well and store it with the tip facing downward so any water inside can drip out. You can use saline nasal irrigation several times a day to relieve symptoms.
In addition to bulb syringes, there are other nasal irrigation systems available. No matter which method you prefer, be sure to clean and dry the tools carefully after each use. Otherwise, harmful bacteria can grow inside.
Supplements for Sinus Support
In my earlier issue on inflammation, I mentioned a handful of supplements that really make a difference. Since sinusitis is inflammation of the sinuses, those nutrients — curcumin (500 mg daily), vitamin C (2,000 to 4,000 mg daily in divided doses throughout the day), and essential fatty acids (EFAs; 1,000 mg twice daily) are my strong recommendation. Vitamin D is another excellent supplement for sinuses. Many times, temporarily doubling or tripling the daily dose of vitamin D helps relieve sinus infections.
In addition, you may want to check your multivitamin to make certain you’re getting enough immune-boosting vitamin A. A daily dose of 10,000 IUs of vitamin A, along with an additional 15,000 IUs of the vitamin A precursor known as beta-carotene, is ideal. Vitamin A not only maintains healthy immunity overall, it also keeps mucous membranes in top form. Foods rich in vitamin A include sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, leafy greens, mango, papaya, egg yolk, and pumpkin.
At the other end of the alphabet, we have another cold-and-sinus infection fighter, the mineral zinc, which is essential for a healthy immune system. Zinc improves absorption of vitamin A. Egg yolks, fish, mushrooms, whole grains, and pumpkin seeds are good food sources of zinc. In supplement form, 30 mg is a typical dose. Zinc is often sold with copper to maintain a healthy balance of the two.
The last time I saw Joanne, she had come in to my clinic to get a few vaccinations before leaving on a camera safari to Africa. “If it hadn’t been for your advice, I’d be sitting this one out,” she told me. “I haven’t had a single cold in the last year, and no sinus infections or asthma attacks either! A little saltwater, a few vitamins, and I’m good to go. It’s like a whole new world!”