Here’s an appetizing tidbit: Your sinus produces one to two liters of mucus every day—that’s the size of two large soda bottles. Under normal conditions, most of the mucus dribbles undetected down your throat. Yes, it’s gross but also very important: Mucus filters out bacteria, viruses, and fungi in the air that we breathe, and moistens the nasal passages and sinuses, allowing us to breathe easier and lessen risk of infections.
Sometimes, due to allergens, environmental pollution, nasal obstruction or inflammation, the system goes haywire, filling you with congestion. According to American Family Physician, “sinusitis is one of the most common conditions treated by primary care physicians. Each year in the United States, sinusitis affects one in seven adults, and is diagnosed in 31 million patients…Sinusitis is the fifth most common diagnosis for which antibiotics are prescribed.”
The problem with decongestants
Most sinus sufferers rely on over-the-counter decongestants, which, if used too frequently, can cause more harm than good. “Decongestants cause the membranes shrink, but then they rebound and swell worse than they were in the first place. You’ll start using it twice a day and then it increases until you are using it many times a day. It’s not recommended for more than once every 12 hours because it can have side effects on your heart,” explains Jordan S. Josephson, M.D., an NYC nasal and endoscopic sinus surgeon, and author of Sinus Relief Now: The Ground-Breaking 5-Step Program for Sinus, Allergy, and Asthma Sufferers.
He adds that decongestants should only be used for a day or two maybe twice a year. “If you have any heart disease or high blood pressure, you should never use them,” he says.
When to see a doctor
If your symptoms are severe (bad headaches, complete nose clog, facial pain), go see an ear-nose-throat (ENT) physician who specializes in sinus problems. You will need antibiotics if it is a bacterial infection. You can find one through the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. “Make sure you take any medication he or she prescribes as directed and finish it even if you start feeling better,” says Dr. Josephson.
If your symptoms are mild, however, the infection may just be viral and can be helped without resorting to decongestants.
1. Irrigate daily
Air pollution is now at a level that our sinuses are not prepared to handle. Because of that, everyone should be using a Neti pot to wash out their sinuses, just as they would take a shower and brush their teeth. “That will keep you from getting sinus infections and will also control allergies,” says Dr. Josephson.
A Neti pots looks like smaller versions of the magic lamps that genies of folktale popped out of. Fill it with sterile saline solution—do not use plain water, the solution must have salt in it to a specific ratio to prevent infections. You can buy the solution already mixed or mix it yourself: 1 teaspoon of table, kosher or sea salt and a pinch of baking soda with two cups of warm distilled water. Leaning over a sink, pour the solution into one nostril; it will either run out the other or down your throat. This will thin out the mucus and move it out. Dr. Josephson recommends NeilMed Neti Pot, which comes with its own rinse. He also likes the Grossan Hydro-Pulse, which is like a WaterPik for your sinuses.
2. Vibrate, steam, vibrate
First, vibrate your sinuses with a small body massager or vibrator—yes, it can be that kind of vibrator (!) or you can try a face vibrator like this one—to help loosen and dislodge thick mucus. Set the vibrator to low, place it on your cheekbones and run along the bone toward your nose to open up the maxillary sinuses, for a few minutes. “It also works on the forehead to clear the sphenoid sinus,” says naturopathic physician Laurie Steelsmith, N.D., author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health. Then put your head over a bowl of hot water mixed with a sprig or two of herbs like thyme, peppermint, and oregano mixed together. Put a towel over your head to catch the steam. Afterwards, dry your face and vibrate for a few minutes again. “Works like a charm!” says Steelsmith.
3. Stop smoking
Smoking causes irritation and inflammation of your sinuses. “It literally burns the inside of your nose, and leads to vasoconstriction,” explains Dr. Josephson. The burn destroys the cilia, the little hair-like structures that move mucus up your nasal passage and down your throat. Without them, the mucus just stays in your nose, where bacteria multiply, leading to a sinus infection.
4. Clean your environment
Make sure your house is dust- and mold-free. Check for dust under rugs and in lampshade pleats; remember to wash or shake curtains regularly; wipe blinds down with a wet cloth. If you have allergy problems, you might need an air purifier as well. As for mold, it’s everywhere.“ Every house has it, especially in the wet areas. Just look at the bottom of your electric toothbrush!Clean with bleach when you can. It kills mold quickly,” says Dr. Josephson. Don’t use bleach on your Neti pot or anything you use to clean your sinuses. Instead, try white vinegar and then rinse thoroughly.
5. Play detective with your food
Everyone reacts differently to various foods so pay attention to what you eat. Do you get stuffed up after eating dairy, sugar, yeast or drinking wine? Foods with molds such as cheese or mushrooms? Caffeine? Start journaling your meals, and perhaps you can find a pattern of ingestion and congestion.
If you don’t see results in three days, go see an ENT.
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