Sinus and Head Colds
The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Sinus and Head Colds

Several readers asked what else they can do for painful head and sinus congestion, because after two+ weeks of medicines and doctor visits, they were no better, or were worse. Common treatments do not work as claimed, including decongestants and sprays, and can cause sinus pain to continue and recur.

What Are Sinuses?
The sinuses in your head are eight spaces in your skull behind your eyes and nose. They produce mucus, and that is good. Mucus produces antiseptics, and traps and filters germs and particles that you don't want to pass into your respiratory system and the rest of your body. Sinusitis occurs when one or more of your sinus cavities become inflamed.

Inflamed by Inhaling Things
Sinuses can become inflamed without any germs causing it, for example from inhaling particles, allergens, or liquids up the nose. If you have ever "gotten water up your nose" in a pool, you have felt the results. The practice of irrigating the nose and sinuses with salt-water sprays is often prescribed for sinus congestion, and even for preventive "maintenance," but it removes important protective mucus layers and natural disease-fighting compounds, and is irritating in itself. Some people regularly spray the sinuses using a variety of squeeze bottles, or a device called a neti pot. It is an unnecessary practice, and does not prevent the underlying cause of sinus pain. It sets up an addictive cycle of rebound congestion and irritation, and increased risk of infections and discomfort to follow.

Another contributor to rebound congestion is regular use of camphor inhalers. Sniffing camphor is a widespread practice throughout Asia, where decorative camphor containers shaped to fit the nose are sold in most grocery, pharmacy, and convenience stores. Camphor irritates mucus membranes causing a cycle of irritation, more camphor inhalation, and more congestion. Some people develop a habit of inhaling camphor, thinking it is for their congestion, not realizing they have a substance inhalation addiction called "huffing."

Decongestants are a big money item in drug store sales. They are not the best treatment for sinus pain and congestion. You are already too clogged up. You do not want more "drying out." The clogged areas would do better becoming more dilute by drinking hot liquids, not by becoming more gummy and concentrated with the "drying out" of a decongestant. After the decongestant wears off, a rebound can occur of more congestion. Taking more decongestant perpetuates a negative cycle, and can raise blood pressure. Cough syrups and pills that contain dexomethorphan (DXM) to block coughing are not as effective for coughs as hoped, but are popularly abused by kids looking for a cheap, easily available "high" ("rhobotripping") with unhealthy physical and psychoactive effects.

Infections and Antibiotics
Sometimes sinuses fill with bacterial or viral fluid. Antibiotic do not help against sinusitis, even the kinds colonized by bacteria. Antibiotics can kill your body's good "bugs" or weaken them, leaving you susceptible to stronger bad bugs, who learn how to live and multiply in your body. Antibiotics taken orally reduce the needed numbers of beneficial flora that normally live in your GI tract. The nutritional and immunogenic products that they normally make in your body are not made, and the organisms responsible for several illnesses can rapidly reproduce and get out of control. An example is antibiotic-associated Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) colitis, an infection of the colon that occurs primarily among patients exposed to antibiotics. More than three million C. difficile infections occur in hospitals in the U.S. each year. He number is growing. An estimated 20,000 C. difficile infections occur each year in the U.S. outside the hospital - directly caused by taking antibiotics.

Healthier Ways to Decongest and Sooth:

  • Hot steamy showers and baths.
  • Hot facial compresses.
  • No need for fancy vaporizers with chemicals (more camphor or other irritants to inhale). Put on a kettle or any pot of water and heat until steaming. Stand at a distance where you feel the warm steam, without standing close enough for any chance of burns. No need to bend over as in the photo at right. Stand in healthy comfortable position for your back and neck.
  • Eat spicy foods that you like, such as wasabi or chili peppers.
  • Drink hot peppermint tea, or other warm, aromatic teas with lemon.
  • Reduce irritating particles (rugs, cats, junk piles, cigarettes, or whatever concentrates trigger irritants).
  • A walk outdoors in fresh air and sunshine helps clear breathing and pain.
  • Do any fun exercise to heat your body. Increasing body temperature loosens clogging secretions and generates heat shock proteins that have been found to be pretty good for you. The post Exercise and Cancer touches on the basics of heat shock proteins.
  • The post Fast Fitness - Quick Warm Up gives a quick method to increase body temperature to warm up.
  • The post Regular Exercise Reduces Cold and Flu Incidence lists good practices to lower risk and increase resistance to infectious diseases.

More information on preventing and resolving sinus problems, things to know about antibiotic use, and other infectious topics are in the book Healthy Martial Arts.

Steam pot photo by Kevin Saff
Steam face towel photo by sunface13
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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.