Nasal Irrigation: Spring Cleaning for Your Nose

The sight of colorful spring flowers and blossoms after a long, cold winter might bring tears to your eyes — along with a runny nose, sneezing and itching, particularly if you suffer from seasonal allergies.

But before you reach for any number of expensive over-the-counter or prescription remedies, you might want to try a cheap alternative treatment that seems to work for many: nasal irrigation, or washing out your nose once or twice daily with warm salt water.

This may be one of the few wacky ancient cures that actually works. No medical study on nasal irrigation for allergies is conclusive, but most are rather positive. There's little risk and little expense in trying. In fact, you have nothing to lose except for the awkward feeling of saltwater rushing into your nose, mixing with mucus and running down your throat.

Spring is in the air

Spring marks the beginning of an unbearable season for many with allergies, as pollen from anemophilous trees such as oak, elm, maple, alder, birch and juniper fill the air. The same yellowish dust that coats your car also fills your nasal passages, causing enough irritation to trigger an allergic reaction.

Pharmaceutical companies, with their singular focus on complex solutions to provide relief at some sub-cellular, protein-binding, DNA-fragmenting, antigen-blocking level, have produced a variety of antihistamines, decongestants and corticosteroids to alleviate symptoms. Some of these drugs come with side effects, though, such as a perpetual drowsiness to sedate you until next winter, or worse, they rob you of the pleasure of operating a forklift.

Nasal irrigation simply washes away the irritants causing the allergy symptoms.

Clinical support

Old-school medical institutions, such as the Mayo Clinic and the pages of the journal Otolaryngology & Head and Neck Surgery, advocate the use of nasal irrigation. The most recent study appeared in the January 2009 issue of Laryngoscope, with the 200 patients in the study reporting some relief of symptoms from twice daily irrigations.

To try it, you can invest two dollars in a bulb syringe. (Times are tight; you may be tempted to lift a packet of salt from a fast-food joint.) Or you can buy a neti pot, which looks like a little oil lamp, often used by yoga devotees. Nasal irrigation is known as jala neti in the ancient Indian practice of ayurveda.

Some yoga practitioners are quite skilled at directing the water in one nostril and out the other, whereas your experience might date back to a certain incident with a dumb joke and cold milk in the grade school cafeteria.

Recipe for relief

To minimize any irritation or feeling of discomfort, you should try to match the water with the temperature and salinity of your body fluids — essentially an eighth of a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water, according to one recipe from the Mayo Clinic.

There are videos and images on the Web that are easy to find and follow. The Mayo Clinic suggests squirting two full syringes into each nostril, allowing it to drain from the same nostril. The Indian technique is trickier.

This might not work for you, but when faced with the alternative of paying $50 a month for drug relief, nasal irrigation is nothing to sneeze at.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.