By Dr. Mercola
Nasal congestion is usually caused by infection or allergy, and is one of the most frequent medical complaints in the United States.
A common belief is that nasal congestion or "stuffy nose" is due to a buildup of mucus.
However, congestion is more often due to swelling of the nasal tissues, caused by inflamed blood vessels.
All in all, nasal congestion can be related to a number of ailments, including:
- Common cold/flu (bacteria or virus)
- Sinus infection (bacteria, virus, mold or fungus)
- Hay fever or other allergies
- Nasal polyps
- Vasomotor rhinitis (non-allergic condition)
- Overuse of nasal sprays/drops
In the case of cold or flu and sinus infections, the congestion typically goes away in about a week.
Chronic sinusitis (sinus infection), on the other hand, can last for months or even years if not addressed properly.
I'll review my treatment recommendations for acute sinusitis below, and special considerations for chronic sinusitis, which is frequently misdiagnosed.
That said, according to a recent study in the journal PLoS Onei, the sensations of nasal congestion may in some cases be related to the temperature and humidity of inhaled air -- perhaps more than any other variable.
How Temperature and Humidity Can Make You Feel "Stuffed Up"
Rhinitis is the medical term for "stuffy nose." Vasomotor rhinitis is a non-allergic condition, characterized by chronic runny nose, sneezing, and nasal congestion. Changes in temperature and humidity have already been identified as a potential triggers. (Other triggers include strong odors, perfumes, smoke, fumes, and bright sunlight.)
The results of the featured study indicate that the sensory feedback from nasal airflow can contribute to the feeling of congestion, and that by altering temperature and humidity levels of inhaled air, you may experience some relief.
The authors of the study suggest that the interaction between temperature and humidity influence "nasal cooling" as the air moves through your nasal cavity. This nasal cooling is detected by "sensors" inside your nose, which stimulate the sensation of air flow being either easy or obstructed, with cooler air resulting in feelings of less obstruction. Essentially, nasal congestion can be sensory related.
According to lead author Kai Zhao, Ph.Dd, a bioengineer, an effective treatment for nasal congestion may need to include restoring optimal humidity and temperature to the patient's nasal airflow.
What's the Ideal Level of Humidity?
According to Dr. Robert Ivker, D.O., former President of the American Holistic Medical Association, the ideal level of relative humidity for sinus health is between 35-45 percent. This level is also generally recommended to avoid mold damage in your home. (To accurately determine the relative humidity in your home you would use a hygrometer, available in most home improvement stores.) In the featured study, the two types of air conditions associated with the most effective decrease in feelings of congestion were:
- Cold air, and
- Dry air at room temperature
If your home or office is too humid (above 45 percent), you may want to consider reducing the amount of moisture in the air, as excessive levels may also cause mold and fungi growth that could wreak havoc on your health—it may even be the root cause if you're suffering from chronic sinus infections. To decrease humidity, you can:
- Use a dehumidifier
- Run the air conditioner
- Take colder and shorter showers
- Install a fan in your kitchen and bathrooms, and leave them on for awhile after you're done cooking or showering
You must be VERY careful about making sure your humidity levels are not too high. This does not need to be due to high outdoor humidity but more commonly is due to some type of water intrusion in the home from a leaky roof, foundation or plumbing. The high humidity will cause mold to grow and could devastate your health as I have written about previously. So the key is to find the cause of the increased humidity and repair it. It would be wise to use a large commercial dehumidifer in your home to lower the humidity until the problem is fixed.
However, very dry air is also known to increase feelings of congestion because drying out your sinus membranes can irritate them further. So depending on your individual circumstances, if the air in your home is excessively dry, then increasing the humidity may help. To increase humidity, you can:
- Use a vaporizer or humidifier
- Create a steam bath by taking a hot shower, or filling your sink with hot water, then placing a towel over your head as you lean over the sink
- Breathe in the steam from a hot cup of tea
Do You Have a Sinus Infection?
Sinus infections (sinusitis) affect over 39 million Americans every year.ii It typically occurs when the mucous membranes in your nose and sinuses become irritated by a cold, allergy, or pollution, for example, which then cause them to become inflamed. Once inflamed, the motion of your cilia (the tiny hairs that coat the mucous membranes and are responsible for moving mucus over their surfaces) slows down. At the same time, the irritation stimulates your mucous glands to secrete more mucus than usual to dilute the bacteria.
As a result, mucus gets trapped in your sinuses, where it can easily become infected.
It's important to understand that antibiotics can spell disaster for this problem. If used long-term, they can lead to very serious complications that may be very difficult to remediate against, including chronic yeast infections and impaired immune function. Furthermore, as I will discuss below, the vast majority of chronic sinusitis cases may be due to exposure to mold or fungi rather than bacteria, which antibiotics will have no effect on at all. Symptoms of sinus infection include:
Congestion and pressure around your eyes, cheeks and forehead Thick, green or yellow mucus Toothache Cold symptoms lasting more than 10 days Postnasal drip (excess mucus dripping down the back of your throat) Fatigue
Beware: Sinusitis is Often Misdiagnosed
The problem with sinus issues is that that they're very easily misdiagnosed. Sinus problems and post-nasal drip can actually be a tip-off that you're being affected by mold or fungi.
In fact, research done by the Mayo Clinic in the 1990s that strongly suggests NEARLY ALL chronic sinusitis is caused by fungi, but blamed on bacteria—then mistreated using antibiotics. The findings were published in 1999 in two peer-reviewed journals, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology and Mayo Clinic Proceedings.iii Yet, most physicians are still unaware of this study, or at least of its significance. A 1999 Mayo Clinic press releaseiv stated:
"Mayo Clinic researchers say they have found the cause of most chronic sinus infections—an immune system response to fungus.
The Mayo Clinic study suggests that 96 percent of the people who suffer from chronic sinusitis are "fungal sensitized," meaning they have immune responses triggered by inhaled fungal organisms! This explains why antibiotics are so ineffective for chronic sinusitis as they target bacteria, NOT fungi. Antibiotics and steroids can actually worsen fungal-related infections by destroying your body's natural biological terrain, creating an internal incubation ground for further fungal growth.
The bottom line is, if you have chronic sinusitis, you MUST approach it from the perspective of a fungal infection FIRST, not a bacterial infection, even if it means having to educate your healthcare provider. A good place to start is by sharing the Mayo Clinic study referenced above. The book, Mold: The War Withinv is also a useful resource.
How to Treat Sinusitis Without Drugs
For chronic sinusitis, please refer to this previous article about how to address sinusitis caused by mold and fungi exposure. The following natural treatments can help you get over an acute sinus infection without the use of antibiotics and unnecessary OTC drugs, by keeping your cilia healthy and functioning, thereby preventing excess mucus build-up in your sinuses.
- Drink hot liquids, such as tea or hot chicken soup. It will help moisturize your mucous membranes, speeding up the movement of your cilia and thus washing mucus out of your sinuses more quickly.
- Apply warm compresses to your face, three times a day for five minutes. A small towel soaked in warm water, placed over your face below and between the eyes, will help increase the circulation in your sinuses, which will also help speed up the movement of your cilia.
- Irrigate your sinuses. In a 2007 study from University of Michigan Health System researchersvi, saline irrigation was found to decrease nasal congestion more effectively than saline sprays. It appears to work by thinning mucus, decreasing swelling in your nasal passages and removing debris, bacteria, allergens and inflammatory substances from your nose, hence decreasing swelling that makes it hard to breathe. (If you've never done this before, see these Nasal Irrigation Guidelinesvii by the University of Michigan.)
To make your own preservative-free saline solution, just add one teaspoon of himalayan or sea salt to one pint of distilled water. Make sure you use a saline solution that does not contain benzalkonium, a preservative that can impair your nasal function and might sting and burn.
- Clear your sinuses with an aromatherapy steam bath. To help open up congested nasal passages and sinuses, put a couple of drops of eucalyptus or menthol aromatherapy oil into a bowl of hot water, then breathe the vapors. In lieu of aromatherapy oil, dabbing some Vick's VapoRub on your skin underneath your nose can also be effective.
- Unclog your sinuses with the right foods. Horseradish, grated on top of a sandwich, or some Japanese wasabi mustard can also help open up congested sinuses.
- Elevate your head when sleeping.
- Dust your bedroom. Dust and dust mites can wreak havoc on your mucous membranes, especially when you're asleep and your cilia are at rest. Using a HEPA filter air purifier is also beneficial in keeping your air as free from allergens as possible.
How to Prevent Sinus Infections Before They Start
Poor food quality, excessive exposure to toxic chemicals and a high-stress lifestyle puts you at greater risk for not only sinus infection but all disease. Therefore, maintaining a robust immune system and creating an environment inhospitable to bacterial and fungal proliferation can help prevent sinus problems and infections from occurring in the first place. Here are some of the basic strategies to keep your immune system in top form:
- Avoid eating sugar or grains, as detailed in my nutrition plan
- Take a high-quality animal-based omega-3 supplement such as krill oil, which acts as a potent anti-inflammatory
- Optimize your vitamin D levels by getting appropriate amounts of sun exposure year-round. Alternatively, use a safe tanning bed (one with electronic ballasts rather than magnetic ballasts, to avoid unnecessary exposure to EMF fields. Safe tanning beds also have less of the dangerous UVA than sunlight.) If neither of these are feasible options, then you should take an oral vitamin D3 supplement.
- Consume organic coconut oil. Coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, which is known for being antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal
- Avoid eating these top 10 mycotoxic foods
- Get proper sleep
- Get regular exercise especially Peak Fitness type exercises