Summer Sinus Problems

Six Ways to Avoid the Misery

4 min read

If you’re among the 37 million Americans who suffer from sinus problems, you know just how miserable the symptoms can make you feel. The congestion. The facial pain. The postnasal drip-drip-drip.

Summer often brings a bit of a respite, as the cold viruses that trigger most cases of sinusitis are less active in warm weather. And, experts say the sinus problems that do crop up in summer can often be avoided -- if you take these six precautions:

In most parts of the country, the air outdoors is filled with pollen in summer months. Pollen is harmless to most people. But for some, breathing pollen-laden air can cause symptoms ranging from sneezing and itchy, watery eyes to nasal congestion -- which, in turn, can bring sinus trouble.

There’s no way to avoid pollen entirely. “It’s blowing all over the place,” says James Stankiewicz, MD, chairman of the department of otolaryngology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “You can’t put yourself in a bubble, and surgical masks don’t filter everything out.”

But, it helps to stay indoors in the morning hours, when pollen levels peak, he says. When indoors or in your car, keep the windows up and the air conditioner on.

A HEPA air filter and vacuum cleaner can be helpful, especially if your home is carpeted. And, if you have a dog that spends time outside, bathing it regularly during the summer months will help keep it from tracking pollen throughout your house.

Hay fever sufferers who are planning a summer getaway may want to check pollen levels at their destination before finalizing an itinerary. A week at the beach (where pollen levels tend to be low) might make more sense than a week of camping.

Because sinus infections typically start off as colds, steps you take to ward off cold-causing rhinoviruses also help safeguard your sinuses.

One of the most important precautions is to keep your nasal passages moist. You can do this with the help of an over-the-counter salt water (saline) spray. Keep a bottle handy, and give each nostril a blast several times a day.

Nasal douching, that is. It moistens nasal passages and helps rid the nose of bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that can lead to sinus pain and inflammation.

Nasal douching, a.k.a. nasal irrigation, is easy to do: Once a day, lean over the sink, tilt your head, and rinse out your nostrils with warm salt water.

“You can do this in less than five minutes,” says Scott P. Stringer, MD, chairman of otolaryngology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. “Make it part of your tooth brushing routine. You just need about two tablespoons of water for each side.”

If you find it hard to manipulate a squeeze bottle or bulb, try a neti pot. That’s a receptacle specially designed for nasal douching.

The mucous membrane that lines the nostrils and sinuses can be damaged by various irritants, including automobile exhaust, smog, mold spores, and smoke from a campfire or cigarettes. So, do what you can to limit your exposure.

“Smoke is the single worst thing for the sinus sufferer,” says Denver-based sinus specialist (and former sinus sufferer) Robert S. Ivker, DO, author of Sinus Survival. “It damages the delicate cilia and the mucous membrane itself.”

Another major offender is the chlorine in swimming pools -- particularly indoor pools with limited ventilation. If you spend lots of time in the pool each summer, a nose clip can offer some protection. And, be aware that diving can force water into your nostrils and sinuses.

Unchlorinated water, like that found in unpolluted lakes and rivers and in the ocean, poses little threat to your sinuses.

The bone-dry, often germ-laden air inside the cabin of an airliner is notoriously hostile to sinuses. To protect yours during the onslaught, take along some saline nasal spray and spritz repeatedly while aloft. Drinking lots of water also helps, experts say.

If you’re already experiencing sinus congestion, you might have trouble clearing your ears during the flight. If you can’t postpone your trip, use Afrin (oxymetazoline) nasal spray before takeoff, and swallow repeatedly during ascent and descent. (Because oxymetazoline can be habit forming, doctors warn not to use it more than a few days.)

Nonprescription antihistamines, such as Claritin and Zyrtec, can be quite effective against minor allergy symptoms, including sneezing and a runny, itchy nose. If you’re also bothered by congestion, adding an over-the-counter decongestant such as Sudafed might help. Antihistamine-decongestant combinations are also available; these products often include a “D” in the name, as in Claritin D.

For more severe or persistent symptoms, consult your doctor. You might need a steroid nasal spray or course of antibiotics. If your symptoms are especially bad, you might be a candidate for allergy shots or another form of immunotherapy.