Netipotism: The Ins and Outs of Nasal Irrigation
Spring is trying very hard to arrive here in Michigan… winter is not going away without a fight, but I suppose that’s what April weather in the midwest is all about. And as much as I’m looking forward to warmer, sunnier weather, there’s a part of me that dreads the end of winter every year. In the search for the most esoteric topics to discuss, I’d like to discuss my life as a chronic sinusitis sufferer.
As soon as the grass starts growing, and the flowers start blooming, my seasonal allergies emerge right along with them. My entire life, I’ve been cursed with lousy, crummy sinus troubles. The ability to breathe clearly through my nose is something I never take for granted, because it’s usually just not going to happen. I am a proud, card-carrying Mouth Breather.
While I’m certainly not the only person on the planet with sinus woes, it certainly feels like the world is out to get me when they get bad. Childhood tests revealed that if a thing is a plant or an animal, I am most certainly allergic to it.
Lifelong allergy medication does a fairly good job of controlling the sneezing and the itchy eyes, my sinus woes continued. The stuffiness, the dark circles, the headaches. Like the old geezer who can predict the weather with his arthritic knees, my sensitive sinus cavities can detect a shift in the weather days before it arrives. While this is a convenient on-board feature, modern technology and the Weather Channel do just as good a job of telling me the weather forecast without me having to suffer through another headache.
A seriously deviated septum was discovered in the late 90’s. Fixing that was presented as a solution to most of my sinus problems. I went through the horrifying procedure to get it undeviated, but nothing. No improvements.
What about decongestant medications? Yeah, they work. To a point. The one that works best for me, Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), requires me to take about 8 pills a day. That and the fact that, thanks to owners of meth labs everywhere, I’m now required to sign my life away for and present two forms of picture I.D. at the pharmacy counter just to get my hands on some. The inconvenience, the cost, and the fact that I don’t want to always have synthetic drugs coursing through my veins led me to search for more natural alternatives.
The one true solution I have found, out of many, is what is optimistically referred to as ‘nasal irrigation.’ Less attractive terms for the process include ‘nasal lavage’ and ‘nasal douche.’ I’ll stick with nasal irrigation if you don’t mind. What seemed to me at first to be quackery at its finest has turned out to be the one thing that brings me true, natural relief.
Nasal Irrigation in the Real World: Enter the Neti Pot
Early searches for sinus solutions kept bringing up mentions of a ‘neti pot.’ That’s a mysterious sounding word. It sounds like something that would originate in eastern medicines, which I guess is true. But relax: a neti pot is just a fancy word for a pot, or cup, or any other water-holding vessel that is used to introduce a saline water solution into the nose. The advertised results? Immediate and lasting relief from chronic sinusitis, allergies, congestion, drainage, sinus infections,colds, dusty work environments, etc. etc. But does it actually work? Only one way to find out…..
The process is simple. What follows is the procedure that I follow, which doesn’t stray far from the printed instructions.
The pot is filled with warm water (it should be about body temp of 98 degrees) with a little iodine-free salt. (the amount varies by product, resulting in a 0.9% saline solution.) Then, I tip my head to one side over the sink and put the pots’ spout in the top nostril. Then you just slowly pour the saline solution into your nose. And now we’re having some fun!!! The water flows up into the nose, then gravity allows it to flow through the sinuses, and back out the nose through the other nostril. You are, in effect, literally pouring water into and out of your head. And this is what I believe is what turns most people off to the whole nasal irrigation process: it just sounds too crazy. I admit, I had serious reservations. It is admittedly a strange, not altogether comforting feeling the first few attempts at it. But once I learned to relax and breath deeply and slowly through my mouth, I slowly began to feel comfortable with the sensation.
And then a funny thing happened: I started to like it. Why? Because the damn thing works. It works!! There is a satisfaction (a sick satisfaction, admittedly, but such is the life of a sinusitis sufferer) in watching the saline water pour out of my nose, along with all the accumulated mucus it’s flushing out. Seriously: you get a front row view of all the snot and garbage that’s been stuffing up your sinuses literally flowing out of your sinuses and down the drain. But that’s not even the best part. The best part comes when you’re finished, and you’ve blown any leftover water and stuff out of your nose, and you step outside. After decades of stuffy noses, after flushing with the neti pot, I could SMELL again. The air became alive again. I could smell the AIR !! This was my revelation: I’ve been missing out on a large portion of one of the body’s major senses all this time, and all it took to fix it was to pour some warm salt water through my nose.
Admittedly, it is a rather strange-looking procedure. My kids used to watch in horror when they were younger as Daddy poured water through his face. My wife, well, this just adds to her list of things I do that are crazy. I could post a video of me in action with my neti pot, but some things are better left in the privacy of ones’ own bathroom. But look at this guy: this is roughly what it’s going to look like. Maybe dial down the enthusiasm a bit.
Now, nasal irrigation isn’t a permanent fix. I still suffer from sinus troubles, but I’ve found that if I stick to a routine of one or two flushes per day, things are fairly under control. By flushing away all the gunk that normally stays put in my sinuses, the linings of the sinuses are able to more easily do their job, and the mucus buildup that can lead to infections is washed away. Literally washed away. It’s a feeling that only somebody who has suffered through years of bad sinuses can ever truly appreciate. While I’ll probably never be 100% free of sinus issues, with nasal irrigation I can control it, and have reduced my drug use to control it a great deal. (again, I do still rely on medication for times when I really need it, which I’ll get to.)
Nasal Irrigation Observations
After using my neti pot and nasal irrigation for several years, I’ve got some stray observations I can share that will hopefully help others who are suffering from sinusitis.
There are a number of different types of nasal irrigation devices. Personally, I prefer the neti pot, which relies on gravity to pour water through a tilted head. For those who are uncomfortable with this, there are other types of nasal irrigation bottles where, instead of turning your head sideways, shoot the water straight up into the nose, using pressure to blast the water through the sinuses and out the other side. I find this pressure to be too much, and it also forces water into my ears. (for some odd reason the sinuses and the ear canals are connected. This I simply do not understand.) I prefer the more gentle flow of water through my sideways-turned head.
Manufacturers of nasal irrigation products stress the importance of using distilled or purified water only. It turns out a few years ago a couple people died when they used water that was contaminated with bacteria in their neti pots….. My original neti pot came with instructions that stated that if water was clean enough to drink, it was clean enough to use for nasal irrigation. This is the instruction that went out before the lawyers got involved, and it’s what I follow. Warm water out of the tap is easier than heating it in the microwave or on the stove. Then again, our municipal water is clean, so I don’t worry about it too much. But if you worry about your water’s cleanliness, buy some distilled or purified water to use.
It’s VERY important to use iodine-free salt! It’s clearly labeled and very cheap at the grocery store. If you use regular table salt with iodine, you will experience very unpleasant burning throughout your sinuses. Trust me. You will. Many companies market single-use packets of saline solution, but it’s just the same iodine-free salt with a little baking soda in it. It’s fine to use, but you’re going to pay a lot more for it.
Whatever you use as the source for your salt, make sure you use the right amount. Too much OR too little will burn.
Regarding the temperature of the water you use: It really needs to be about body temperature, around 98 degrees. Trial and error will lead you to the correct temp. The human sinus cavity is ridiculously sensitive, and water that is too hot or too cold is going to lead to horrific burning, just like using too much or too little salt. And the burning you will experience is worse than the worst sinus headache, and not worth it. Be careful !
Perhaps the most important pearl of wisdom I can give anyone thinking of trying this is this: Nasal irrigation works best as a preventative measure. Start doing it on a day when your sinuses are relatively clear (i.e. you can breathe through your nose). Daily usage will gradually help keep your sinuses clear, but it doesn’t really work if your nose is already stuffed up. There have been days when I’ve tried to do nasal irrigation on a stuffed up nose, only to pour several ounces of water into my sinuses and have it disappear. This is not going to help your congestion situation! That saline water needs at least a semi-unobstructed pathway to escape, or it’s going to get stuck. Then you’re pretty much resigned to drugs and waiting for it to clear out. There will be times, like when you have a head cold, or the flu, when you’re just really plugged up. This will not be the time to pour water through your sinuses. Wait until you’re feeling better to start irrigating again.
The other day, I spent an hour sweeping out our garage after our brutal winter. There was lots of fine dirt and salt swept up into the air; it was nasty. Later that night, I got the neti pot out and flushed my sinuses. The amount of black dirt and dust that was flushed out astounded me, and I’ve been doing this for years! Now the thought of all that grime being stuck in my sinuses kind of freaks me out, and I can’t wait to get rid of it. By making nasal irrigation part of my daily routine along with showering, shaving and brushing my teeth, has made a difference. Give it a shot: most neti pots are relatively inexpensive, and definitely cheaper than a lifetime of drug purchases. Hopefully you’ll find the process not too weird, and ultimately find a little bit of relief. Smell the air again!
p.s. This is going to some strange, maybe even a little gross, but it’s another way I know that nasal irrigation works. Sometimes, as the saline solution is flowing out of my nose and immediately afterwards, I swear to God I can smell foods that I ate a day or two earlier. The trapped smells of previously eaten meals is getting flushed out of my sinuses! If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. You’ll see.