In most regions of the nation, spring brings on a pollen assault. For days, sometimes weeks, pollen fills the air. It dusts the car and buildings, the surrounding landscape. Many of us don’t have to see it to know that pollens have blown in: Our stuffed-up sinuses deliver the message.
From Pollen Allergies to Post-Nasal Drip
Those affected snort, cough, sneeze, blow their noses all day and can’t breathe all night. Their eyes may itch and swell shut, their faces get puffy, their jaws and even their teeth ache. They get hit around and just behind our eyes with blinding headaches. Sometimes they can’t smell or taste much.
And that’s just the seasonal allergies. Other folks suffer from year-round post-nasal drip, frequent colds, or recurrent full-blown sinus infections that just won’t quit.
If any of this misery describes you, you have a lot of company. What medical specialists who study and treat inflamed sinuses call rhinosinusitis is among the most common diseases in the U.S. Chronic rhinosinusitis afflicts 15 percent of the population, and 30 million of us will come down with acute (short-term) rhinosinusitis this year.
What Are Sinuses, Anyway?
The paranasal sinuses are air-filled spaces in the forehead, behind and around the eyes, behind the nose, and under the cheekbones. They produce mucus that drains into the nasal passages.
The functions of these holes in our heads remain something of a medical mystery, although scientists say they help humidify the air we breathe in, may contribute to immune function, and provide strength and structure to facial bones.
What Causes Inflamed Sinuses?
Setting aside chronic illnesses such as cystic fibrosis and asthma, inflamed sinuses have a variety of causes, including infections (usually viral, but sometimes bacterial or fungal), allergies, environmental irritants, a deviated septum, nasal polyps, infected teeth, even stress.
When To See a Doctor
Specialists suggest toughing it out for the first week to 10 days of an acute bout with stuffed-up sinuses, since most sinusitis comes from a viral infection and clears up without medical treatment.
See a doctor if your stuffiness lasts more than a couple of weeks, if you spike a high fever, if you experience chronically inflamed sinuses, or if you fall prey to recurrent respiratory illnesses.
Don’t be quick to beg your doctor for an antibiotic to treat your sinus inflammation. Infectious disease experts say only a small percentage of cases result from a bacterial infection that may respond to antibiotics. Most rhinosinusitis results from a cold virus, and antibiotics don’t treat viral infections.
Depending on your symptoms, physicians have an array of drugs to help manage your sinus problems. You’ll also find a dozen or more decongestants and antihistamines on pharmacy shelves that work in various ways to alleviate clogged sinuses (though they effect no cures). But all prescription or OTC congestion-relieving products have side effects, some serious.
People with chronic illnesses, or who take other prescription medications, should check with their doctor before using over-the-counter sinus relief products. Longterm or too-frequent use of some OTC products can worsen your symptoms or interact with other medications.
Self-care for Sinusitis
Many simple, drug-free self-care practices can help relieve acutely or chronically inflamed sinuses:
Try one of these safe, quick tricks for immediate (though temporary), relief. Amazing!
Especially when you have a cold, stay well-hydrated (lots of water and warm tea).
Humidify the air in your home, and if you’re really stuffy, try a good, old-fashioned steam (hold a big towel over your head to catch the steam from a pot of simmering water). You might also try a personal steam inhaler, available at pharmacies.
Irrigate your sinuses and nasal passages with a warm saline solution to clear dust, pollen, and excess mucus. If you choose to try this ancient sinus-irrigating technique of the neti pot, please read and follow these FDA instructions to the letter. It’s especially important to use only boiled or sterile water in your pot.
Before sleep, slap on a Breathe Right or other brand of nasal strips. These band-aid like devices gently pull open the nasal passages and keep them open through the night.
If allergies are causing your sinus congestion, try allergy-proofing your home. (Serious work!)
Herbal Remedies for Allergies and Sinus Congestion
Many people find relief from seasonal allergic rhinitis or chronic sinus inflammation with herbs, (including me).
First, the caveats:
Chat with your doctor about trying an herbal remedy. Remember, if an herbal product is effective, it works as a drug. You may experience an allergic reaction or side effects, and the herb may interact with other drugs or herbs you’re already taking. Your doctor will have access to information that might not be readily available to you.
Unless you’re under the supervision of a medical professional, don’t take any herbal products if you’re pregnant or nursing, or if you have a chronic illness such as diabetes or asthma.
Tell your doctor about all herbs or supplements you take.
Don’t take more than what’s recommended on the label of the product you choose.
Indigenous peoples have used, and modern herbalists still use, many native herbs to treat both short-term and long-term congestion. Among the best-known and most widely used: stinging nettle and butterbur. Small clinical studies have shown positive effects for both these herbs.
- Stinging nettle has been used for centuries as a remedy for allergic rhinitis (and many other ailments). Modern freeze-drying apparently concentrates the compounds that soothe inflamed nasal passages and sinuses.
Some research has shown that butterbur eases allergic rhinosinusitis (and also migraines), though the unprocessed herb contains potentially toxic compounds called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). If you want to try butterbur, use only a product that’s certified PA-free.
My Story with Sinusitis
After years of intermittent severe pain in my left upper molars, and repeated visits to endodontists who couldn’t detect anything wrong, a dental hygienist finally diagnosed the problem from an X-ray.
“Oh, look!” She exclaimed, pointing. “See how the roots of these molars extend way up into your sinus cavity. Whenever your sinuses swell up, they press on those roots and cause your discomfort.”
I’ve suffered from an irritating post-nasal drip for decades, which may (or may not) be related to pollen, woodsmoke, wood ashes, sawdust, and careless housekeeping. My colds lasted for weeks.
I tried OTC antihistamines, prescription steroid sprays, and a Chinese herb that gave me heart palpitations. I used neti pots and steamers. I drank copious amounts of my homemade mix of dried goldenrod-yarrow tea all winter (works well to open stuffed sinuses, but the results don’t last long.)
After reading recommendations from two herb-friendly medical doctors to take freeze-dried nettles for sinus congestion, I decided to try them. I knew I wasn’t allergic to the plant, since I’d pulled and eaten the young leaves in large quantities every spring for decades. (They flourish as weeds in my raspberry patch.) I don’t take any prescription medications, so I didn’t worry about drug interactions.
I started one spring morning with a single 300 mg capsule. Within minutes, my airways cleared, my head stopped pounding, and my eyes stopped itching, without any of the uncomfortable dried-out feeling I get from antihistamines.
Ever since, I’ve taken one or two 300-mg capsules whenever I start feeling stuffy, every few hours if needed. I know stinging nettle won’t work for everyone with a sinus problem, but it’s been life-altering for me.