Chronic sinus or allergy problems can leave you feeling as though your nose is perpetually stuffed. To breathe freely again, many sinus sufferers rely on nasal irrigation, a technique that flushes out clogged nasal passages using a saltwater solution.
"I find it to be the first line of defense in dealing with complicated sinus problems and allergy problems," says Evangeline Lausier, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine and director of clinical services at Duke University's department of integrative medicine. "Particularly if you are developing congestion or have a sinus infection, it's very helpful."
Several different types of products can be used for nasal irrigation. The most basic are a bulb syringe, squeeze bottle, or neti pot. With these devices, the user manually pours or sprays a mixture of salt and water into the nostril. The fluid flows through the nasal cavity and into the other nostril. More high-tech nasal irrigation systems propel the solution into the nose, allowing the user to control the spray and pressure.
The basic technique with all the devices is the same, so choosing a system is largely a matter of personal preference. "I think the most important thing is finding a technique that the patient can do and is willing to do," says Melissa Pynnonen, MD, associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of Michigan.
Pros of Nasal Irrigation
The idea behind nasal irrigation is that it helps the body get rid of irritating and infectious agents that make their way into the nose. The nasal passages come equipped with tiny, hair-like structures called cilia, which beat back and forth to catch dirt, bacteria, viruses, and other unwelcome substances.
"It is a defense mechanism that your body has," Lausier says. "The cilia beat and the mucus acts kind of like flypaper, catching spores and particles you inhale." Those particles get pushed down to the back of the throat, where they are swallowed and destroyed by stomach acid.
"What happens with sinus problems or allergies is the consistency of the mucus changes, so that it's harder to beat, or harder to move, or thicker," Lausier says. Nasal irrigation helps thin out the mucus and improve the coordination of the cilia to help them more effectively remove bacteria and other irritants from the sinus passages.
Nasal irrigation can be an effective way to relieve sinus symptoms, and a complement to traditional sinus treatments such as antibiotics and nasal steroids. "Nasal irrigation is one attempt to help patients manage their symptoms, whether that's in addition to antibiotics or instead of antibiotics," Pynnonen says. "It works best to relieve symptoms of dry mucus, thick mucus, and crusty mucus."
Cons of Nasal Irrigation
Using nasal irrigation to clear stuffed sinuses can be helpful from time to time for relieving symptoms, but a study presented at the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology in 2009 shows that it may actually be counterproductive when used regularly over the long term. The study showed that patients who used nasal saline irrigation for a year and then stopped using it for a year had a 62% lower incidence of sinusitis during the year in which they stopped.