Finding someone who suffers from sinus infections is like playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” You know, the game where you can link any actor to Bacon within six connections of others who have worked with him. “Six Degrees of Sinusitis” may not be as glamorous—mucus and all—but it does show how prevalent sinus infections are. Whether you know someone who has sinus infections, or your friend knows someone, chances are you’ll reach your common denominator in less than six steps.
Sinus infections, also called sinusitis, are considered one of the most common respiratory conditions in the world, affecting 40 million Americans alone each year, says Dr. Robert Ivker, author of Sinus Survival: The Holistic Medical Treatment for Sinusitis, Allergies, and Colds. The symptoms can be similar to those of a cold or the flu—congestion, headache and thick yellow-green nasal discharge—but the duration of symptoms is much longer, ranging anywhere from three to 12 weeks; or for chronic sufferers, years.
You’re thinking “ick,” right? As unpleasant as talking about mucus may be, sinus infections are much more painful to experience. Cold and flu season, which runs from October to March, is a particularly dreadful time for sinusitis sufferers because cold viruses weaken our immune systems, leaving us susceptible to a bacterial infection.
Luckily, there are a number of home remedies and natural supplements to kick out that congestion, reduce inflammation, and decrease the chances of the infection returning.
All stuffed up
Even though the sinuses are only about two millimeters in diameter, they play a vital role in keeping our lungs clean and healthy. The sinuses are four-paired sets of holes in the skull behind the forehead, nasal bones, cheeks, and eyes that help protect the lungs by filtering and humidifying the air we breathe through our noses.
When the lining of the sinuses becomes inflamed from various irritants, the body’s natural defense is to produce mucus to flush out the invaders. The swelled sinuses prevent the mucus from draining to the nasal cavity, and thick secretions clog the sinuses, creating an inviting home for bacteria to thrive. This infection can last for months or worse, never fully clear up for chronic sufferers. Symptoms include facial pressure and pain, fever, congestion, heartburn, fatigue, and even toothaches.
“The keys are to stop mucus production, thin the mucus, and then use natural antibacterial agents to kill all the pathogens,” says Pamela Spencer, a licensed holistic nutritionist in Sacramento, California.
Prescription decongestants are designed to alleviate the stuffy feeling and offer quick relief, but are dangerous because the chemicals are addictive and our bodies become dependent on using the substance, sometimes for many years. Antibiotics also alleviate symptoms by killing the bacteria, but they don’t prevent recurrent infections. When the antibiotic is used repetitively, the bacteria become resilient and a yeast overgrowth called Candida may develop, leading to fungal sinusitis, which is even harder to treat.
The most effective natural supplement in treating sinus infections is Allimax, says Ivker, who has treated sinusitis patients for the last 30 years in Littleton, Colorado. Allimax is 100 percent pure Allicin, the active ingredient in garlic, which when taken in large doses is a natural antibacterial food. Ivker recommends taking the supplement two times a day for 10 days.
Saline nasal irrigation is also an effective way to clean out the sinuses and wash out bacteria. Mix one-quarter teaspoon of sea salt, one-fourth teaspoon of baking soda and eight ounces of warm tap water, and pour the solution into a nasal irrigation device called a Neti pot, which resembles a small teapot. Tilt your head to one side and pour the solution into one nostril until it comes out the other side. Use the pot one-to-two times a day on each nostril.
“Start using the Neti pot right away and flush out all that mucus, and if it keeps coming back you know you haven’t gotten to the underlying cause yet,” says Spencer.
Stop irritating me
Getting rid of all irritants, including allergens and inflammatory foods, is important in keeping the mucus membrane healthy. Spencer says diet can play a major role in weakening the immune system, making your body more susceptible to infection and harder for you to fight it off.
“Typically if a patient removes dairy and gluten from their diet, that is a huge, huge, help,” she says. Gluten (found in most wheat-, flour-, and barley based products) and dairy are two of the most common inflammatory foods, and are often culprits in mucus formation.
“All of us have a couple foods that we are sensitive to, and sometimes we don’t know what they are,” says Spencer, who recommends a food antibody test to figure out which foods may cause an allergic reaction.
Eliminating artificial sugars and processed foods, and adding in more organic fruits and vegetables also aids in cleaning out your system. Cut down on sugar, alcohol, and any fermented foods because they feed the Candida growth in the sinuses.
Also, treating seasonal allergies to pollen and ragweed will reduce or possibly eliminate sinus inflammation, along with removing other respiratory irritants from your home like mold, dust, and pet dander. Inflammation is often caused by upper-respiratory infections, so people with asthma and allergies are more vulnerable than others to chronic sinusitis.
Pollutants in the air are most likely the culprit for the increasing number of diagnosed sinus infections over the past decade, says Ivker, which is why smokers and people living in cities with poor air quality are likely targets for infection.
“The dirtier, the more polluted, the drier, and the colder the air we are breathing, the harder it is on the mucus membrane and the more inflammation we get,” he says. Ivker suggests using an air purifier or a negative ion generator that doesn’t omit ozone to help clean the air.
Vitamin D, known for fighting infections, is low in the northern hemisphere this time of year, so taking a supplement can be a good preventative measure instead of waiting until the bacteria forms and it’s harder to treat, says Dr. Amy Locke, a University of Michigan Medical School assistant professor who specializes in integrative medicine. Locke recommends taking 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day during the winter, depending on your skin tone, your age, and your location.
Good nasal hygiene also includes keeping your mental health in check. “It’s very consistent to see the personality profile of almost every patient who has chronic sinusitis,” says Ivker. “They are almost all high achievers or people who set high standards of performance for themselves.”
Reducing the stressors in your life that may be weakening your immune system can help your body heal faster. That way, next month you can spend more time spring cleaning your house than worrying about cleaning out your sinuses.