Murray Grossan, MD, ear, nose and throat specialist, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. GrossanInstitute.com
If you suffer from hay fever (allergic rhinitis), you may dread the arrival of spring. As billions of pollen spores are released into the air, it’s likely that your nose will start running or become stuffy, your eyes will itch, you won’t be able to stop coughing and your head will ache.
At least 30% of people who suffer from hay fever go on to develop a related condition known as sinusitis (inflammation of the sinus cavities, usually due to a bacterial or viral infection). But airborne allergens aren’t the only culprit.
If you’re exposed to air pollution, smoke or dry or cold air, or even if you have a common cold, you also are at increased risk for sinusitis. In all of these instances, the mucous glands secrete more mucus to dilute the offending material. Unless the cilia (tiny hairs on the cells of the mucous membrane) move the mucus out, this creates an ideal breeding ground for infection.
When you have cold-like symptoms that last for at least 12 consecutive weeks, you are likely to have chronic sinusitis, the most commonly diagnosed chronic illness in the US. Most of the 37 million Americans who suffer from sinusitis each year turn to decongestants, antihistamines and antibiotics.
What most sinusitis sufferers don’t know: You will have the best chance of preventing sinus problems in the first place if you take care of the cilia. My secrets to improving the health of your cilia…
The cilia play a crucial—though underrecognized—role in keeping the respiratory tract healthy. These tiny hairs wave rhythmically to carry tiny airborne particles and bacteria out of the nasal passages. When allergy symptoms persist for many days or even weeks, however, the cilia become overworked and quit moving.
Cilia also can be damaged if you regularly take antihistamines or breathe dry air—both of which decrease the liquid component of mucus that traps bacteria and is needed for good cilia movement. When the cilia no longer do their job, bacteria multiply, setting the stage for infection.
To test the health of your cilia: Many ear, nose and throat specialists (otolaryngologists) use the so-called saccharin test. With this test, the doctor places a particle of saccharin in your nose and times how long it takes you to taste it.
Normally, the patient tastes the saccharin in five to eight minutes. If the cilia are damaged, however, it may take 25 minutes or longer for the patient to taste it. If the damage is severe, special treatment, such as breathing exercises, may be required.
When allergy or cold symptoms persist or when nasal discharge becomes colored (usually yellow or green)—a symptom of sinusitis—there are some surprisingly simple steps you can take to ensure the health of your cilia.
My favorite methods…
Drink hot tea with lemon and honey. Compounds found in black and green tea help block the body’s allergic response to pollen by inhibiting the production of histamine, the substance that causes nasal stuffiness and dripping due to a cold or hay fever.
Drinking five cups of hot tea a day helps the body mount its natural defenses against infection, scientific studies have shown. The moist heat stimulates the cilia, while lemon and honey thin mucus, allowing for better cilia movement.
Sing “oooommmmm” in a low tone. You might feel a little silly at first, but singing the “oooommmmm” sound, which was used by the ancient yogis as a form of meditation, causes a vibration of air that stimulates the cilia. Make this sound often throughout the day. As an alternative, buy a toy kazoo and hum into it for 10 minutes daily.
Use pulsatile irrigation. This highly effective strategy involves rapidly but gently rinsing your nose with a stream of saltwater (saline solution) that pulses at a rate matching the normal pulse rate of healthy cilia—hence the name pulsatile irrigation.
Clinical trials involving thousands of patients have shown that pulsatile irrigation increases blood flow to the nasal passages and helps restore function to damaged cilia.
Several pulsatile irrigation devices are available from Web sites specializing in allergy or medical products, such as National Allergy or Health Solutions Medical Products. The typical cost is around $100 to $140. For best results, I recommend using this form of irrigation twice daily, as needed.