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Nasal irrigation

Posted Oct 28 2008 9:46pm
Staving off the common cold for years at a time may be a pipe dream, but I'm willing to keep trying. So last night, inspired in part by this NPR report, I finally tried nasal irrigation. The concept seems simple enough: squirt salt water up your nose in order to rinse out your nasal cavity and sinuses. As discussed in a recent, surprisingly readable review article called Nasal Irrigations: Good or Bad? (click here for the complete article), nasal irrigation is apparently safe and effective for treating many conditions affecting the nasal cavity and sinuses (especially sinusitis and rhinitis). Some people claim that regular irrigation actually prevents colds. But exactly how it works remains a mystery. Does nasal irrigation just rinse away excess mucus, which traps viruses and other infectious agents? Or does it somehow enhance the function of cilia, the hair-like microscopic whips found on cells throughout the respiratory tract that normally brush mucus away?

There is also no consensus about the best way to perform a nasal irrigation, or about the ingredients one should use. I decided to go with one of the recipes in the review article:
After mixing it up, I leaned over the kitchen sink and administered the saline using an awkward combination of "positive pressure" (squirting with a bottle), "negative pressure" (inhaling), and gravity (pouring it in with my head tipped back). I haven't decided yet which method I like best, but they all did the trick. It wasn't as unpleasant as I imagined; in fact, I kind of liked it, in much the same way that I enjoy cleaning my ears with Q-tips after a shower. It's nice to give a little attention to neglected body parts like the nasal cavity and the ear canal.

One thing I'd recommend is letting your nose drain as much as possible on its own before blowing your nose in the standard way (i.e., blowing it forcefully while letting air escape through only one nostril at a time). By blowing my nose too soon I ended up forcing saline into my left middle ear (the space immediately behind the eardrum) via the eustachian tube (a structure I describe in more detail in a previous post ). Oddly enough, it felt exactly like getting water in my ear canal during swimming. Fortunately, the fix was quick and easy - I just tipped my head to the right and the wayward saline came pouring out! Good thing I paid attention in anatomy class. 8-)
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