After trying multiple solutions, including prescription drugs, Pashmina Zeeshan, 28, a content marketer in Islamabad, Pakistan, decided to try an old-school method for unblocking her sinuses: steam.
It worked like a charm.
“Turning on a hot water shower in the bathroom a few minutes before a bath at night, and then breathing in the steam during the bath, brought relief,” she says. She also uses steam from boiling water, saying, “I use the steam at night because my sinus issues are worse during the night, but steam is effective at any time during the day.”
Zeeshan has found saline to be another simple source of relief. “I put a few drops of saline solution into one nostril and breathed in, then blew it out through the other nostril,” she says. “Alternatively, a few drops of saline solution into each nostril also helped cleanse the entire sinus cavity.”
Relief from sinus problems can’t happen fast enough when you are feeling stuffy and miserable. But why are sinuses so problematic in the first place?
The term “sinus” refers to a connected system of air-filled cavities inside the skull. They include the maxillary sinuses located in the cheeks, frontal sinuses on each side of the forehead, ethmoid sinuses on each side of the nose between the eyes, and sphenoid sinuses located deeper in the head.
All connected to the nasal passageway, the sinuses are there to help filter and moisturize air as it enters the body. Their location makes them prone to blockages and infections, leading to sinus irritation, or sinusitis.
One of the most common forms of sinus congestion crops up during a head cold.
“Acute sinus problems are usually due to viral infections. These typically include other symptoms such as a cough, chills, sore throat and fever,” says Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. These uncomfortable symptoms usually last about 10 days.
Worsening symptoms may indicate a bacterial infection, also known as acute bacterial sinusitis. The only way to tell the difference between the viral and bacterial varieties is by swabbing the inside of the nose and growing the collected microbes in a culture.
Boosting Immunity Naturally
One of the best ways to avoid sinus problems is to defend yourself against upper respiratory infections. Lifestyle helps, such as washing your hands frequently, not touching your nose and mouth too much, and cleaning surfaces such as keyboards and door handles. So does eating a healthy diet, and getting enough exercise and sleep.
For example, Andrographis paniculata, an herb that grows throughout the tropical regions of Asia, contains compounds that have been found to activate substances within the body that help regulate immunity and inflammation. It has reduced cold symptoms in studies. A special type of fiber, arabinogalactan (ARA), helps stimulate the immune system, allowing it to fend off infections and other health threats. In one study, the incidence of colds was “significantly reduced” among people taking ARA. And olive leaf contains oleuropein, which has been found to be effective against a number of microbes, including the viruses responsible for colds and flu.
Sinusitis that continues for three months or longer is considered chronic. According to Mehdizadeh, such infections include at least two out of four symptoms: nasal congestion, drainage, a sensation of fullness and a decreased or absent sense of smell. Additional symptoms may include pressure, headaches, pain in forehead or cheeks, and difficulty breathing.Sinusitis symptoms often drive people to doctors' offices—up to 22 million office visits a year. Click To Tweet
Symptom severity may vary over time. “Chronic sinus discomfort is usually a waxing and waning issue with persistent sinus pressure and nasal congestion that can last for months,” says Payam Daneshrad, MD, board-certified otolaryngologist with California-based Daneshrad Clinic ENT and Facial Plastic Surgery.Sinusitis is very common: 37 million Americans are affected by every year. Click To Tweet
Typically, sinus congestion is treated with oral antibiotics and nasal sprays. However, steroid sprays can take up to 10 days to start working, says Mehdizadeh. He adds that a “course of fast-acting topical decongestant should only be used in the short term” to avoid the stuffiness “coming back with a vengeance” after usage is stopped.
Non-drug sinusitis management includes nasal irrigation. Employing an actual stream of water, such as using a neti pot, tends to work better than nasal sprays, says Mehdizadeh, and can safely be used two to three times a day if needed. Mehdizadeh cautions against making your own saline solution, noting, “If you use the wrong saline concentration, you can worsen symptoms.”
“Saline nasal irrigation works by helping to remove pollen and dust from the nasal passages,” says Chirag Shah, MD, co-founder of Accesa Labs, an online testing service in El Segundo, California. “When performing saline nasal irrigation, it is recommended that one use filtered, distilled, sterile or previously boiled water.” According to research in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, people who used nasal irrigation experienced fewer symptoms, and they didn’t visit the doctor as often if sinus problems reoccurred.
When stuffy sinuses make it hard to breathe, often the simplest solutions such as running a hot shower can be very effective, as in Zeeshan’s case.
“Steam inhalation is an excellent home remedy to alleviate sinus pressure,” says Bethany Tennant, ND, a naturopathic physician in Portland. “Use a hot shower or even heat water in a bowl, and place a towel over your head and the bowl to create an intense steam treatment.”
Essential oils can also work well to lessen sinus symptoms. Tennant suggests using a few drops of eucalyptus, tea tree or thyme “at the base of a hot shower for a dual purpose steam/essential oil treatment.” An oil diffuser is another option.
Making changes to your household environment can reduce the frequency or intensity of symptoms.
Tennant recommends deep-cleaning your living space to eliminate pet dander, dust mites and mold, all common sinusitis culprits. She suggests using hypoallergenic cleaning supplies, explaining that “dyes, chemicals or perfumes used in laundry or dish detergent or any other home-cleaning products can worsen symptoms.”
Quercetin is a potent flavonoid, found in foods such as citrus and broccoli, that can be taken in supplemental form. “Quercetin contains anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine properties,” says Tennant. It also inhibits production of interleukin IL-4, a substance that plays a role in inflammation. For seasonal allergies, starting a quercetin regimen four to six weeks before the pollen starts to fly produces the best results.
Botanical options include stinging nettles, which have been used for hundreds of years to address rhinitis (runny nose), eczema and arthritis. Nettle leaf is often mixed with peppermint leaf or red raspberry leaf to make a tea. “Better yet, having this as a hot tea can also double as as steam inhalation treatment as well,” Tennant adds.
What you eat can impact sinus symptoms indirectly.
“Some foods are helpful for patients to avoid,” says Olivia Rose, ND, who practices in Toronto. She notes that dairy, including cheese and yogurt, tends to increase mucus production, and it can make expelling mucus a challenge.
“Alternatively, other foods can help,” Rose notes, “such as spicy dishes that contain capsicum and ginger, which can work to clear blocked sinuses.” These spices contain antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties to break down mucus and help the body get rid of it.
Other foods that can help with sinus issues include pineapple, apple and onions.Many people use apple cider vinegar to help with sinus congestion. Click To Tweet
Its array of B vitamins, calcium and magnesium are believed to help clear sinuses and treat allergy symptoms. And chicken soup, a longtime folk remedy for colds, may in fact help relieve sinus congestion and ease upper respiratory infection symptoms.
Rose also recommends acupuncture. “I use this therapy a lot with patients. Placing the needles in acupoints directly on sinus cavities in the face can also be helpful.” In fact, one Chinese study showed that many participants experienced total recovery from their symptoms after undergoing a course of acupuncture.
Regardless of the type of treatment you try, do not allow chronic sinus conditions to go on for too long, cautions Mehdizadeh. “Consequences can include complications outside of the sinuses that may affect the brain or even the eye socket, so you have to be careful.”