Nasal irrigation has officially gone mainstream. If you haven’t subscribed to the trend yet, it’s when you shoot a saline solution directly into one nostril (usually using a neti pot), allowing it to flow through the nasal cavity and out the other nostril, carrying mucus and irritants out with it. Sound gross? It sorta is, but it’s also an effective way to prevent frequent illnesses, especially during the cold and flu season, and speed up the healing process if you do get sick.
“Nasal cleansing has been used since ancient times as a way to gently wash away irritating offenders,” says Dr. Janet Zand, a doctor of of Traditional Chinese Medicine and licensed acupuncturist based in Los Angeles.
“It’s similar in theory to tongue-scraping. You’re basically cleaning out your nose, taking a bit of the burden off your body.”
Zand isn’t the only doctor on board. In a 2009 study published in WMJ, a scientific journal from the Wisconsin Medical Society, 87 percent of physicians surveyed said that have prescribed saline nasal irrigation as an adjunct therapy for a variety of upper respiratory conditions, including viral upper respiratory infections, sinus infections, allergy, and hay fever.
This treatment to clear clogged passageways is advisable for a week to 10 days, but if you need to use it for longer, you may want to talk to your doctor. Research presented at the Asthma & Immunology 2009 Annual Scientific Meeting suggests regularly getting rid of the nose’s immune blanket of mucus could result in recurrent rhinosinusitis (a condition when the cavities surrounding the nasal passages become inflamed). So don’t make this part of your daily routine.
If you’re congested and need a quick fix, give this rinsing technique a temporary go. Neti pots, or small teapots with long spouts, have gained so much popularity, you can easily find half a dozen styles on Walmart.com or at your local drugstore. For a more intense cleaning, you might want to try a nasal irrigator that employs gentle powered suction or one with a special attachment that directs pulsating streams of water towards the throat and tonsils via the nose. Murray Grossan, M.D., an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and author of The Whole Body Approach to Allergy and Sinus Relief, prefers the more forceful water application offered by pulsatile nasal irrigation systems when compared to neti pots.
“Your nasal passages are lined with millions of tiny hairs called cilia, which move in synchrony to push bacteria through the nose, down the throat, and into stomach, where they are destroyed by stomach acid,” he explains. Cold outdoor temperatures slow or immobilize the cilia, so they can’t do their job as well; this is one reason people tend to catch more colds in the winter. “A pulsating nasal irrigator mimics the natural pulsing of your cilia while gently clearing the sinus passageways of viral diseases and harmful bacteria, as well as allergens and toxins.”
IMMUNITY BOOSTER: Another way to fortify your cilia: Drink green tea with lemon. Green tea contains L- theanine, an immune-enhancing amino acid which Grossan says increases ciliary activity. (Black tea will work, too, but not herbal.)
As for the saline solution, you can buy it pre-made or prepare your own at home. Always use distilled or sterilized water, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Tap water that is not filtered, treated, or processed in specific ways is considered unsafe for nasal rinsing. It may contain low levels of organisms, like bacteria and protozoa including amoebas, which can live in your nasal passages and potentially cause serious infections, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To make tap water safe for rinsing, boil it for three to five minutes and let it cool til it’s lukewarm.
Water alone isn’t enough. Adding salt creates a higher osmotic pressure than plain H2O, allowing it to draw out more mucous. Zand says there may be benefits to mixing in additional ingredients, depending on your symptoms. Try one of her home remedies below, cleansing once or twice a day while symptoms are present. One caveat: If you suspect you have a sinus infection, irrigation alone won’t do the trick. Yes, it might alleviate some congestion, but you may need medication to resolve the problem.
If you’re congested due to a cold or allergies…
Try adding ½ teaspoon hydrogen peroxide or 20 drops of licorice root to your solution. Both hydrogen peroxide and licorice have antibacterial qualities. Colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria, but the excess mucous created by colds serves as an attractive hangout for bacteria.
Apple cider vinegar is also antibacterial and can thin mucus almost immediately, too. Start by adding ¼ to ½ teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to your solution. “If it stings, stop and dilute it a bit further with water, or add a tablespoon of pure aloe vera liquid,” she says.
If you can’t smell anything…
Essential oils are very potent. Even one drop can be too strong, Zand warns. When properly diluted, however, a small drop (not dropper) of thyme rosemary or oregano can help clear the sinus passages.