Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting confessed her strange addiction on Ellen this week: decongestant nasal spray.
The Big Bang Theory actress revealed her recent nose surgery was not a nose job, but actually the result of repeatedly misusing the common OTC treatment for nasal congestion. “I was actually really addicted to nose spray. Like, Afrin. Like, for years,” Cuoco told Ellen DeGeneres. “At awards shows I would have to pick out the right clutch so I could fit my Afrin in it, and I’d be under the table snorting it. I’m surprised there are no photos.”
Cuoco explained just how hooked she was: “I couldn’t get enough,” she says. “It was such a problem that I ruined my sinus, so I had to get it fixed. I actually made it completely worse — and [my doctor] said I had to stop.”
Although they do work for congestion, nasal sprays can actually be incredibly addictive, according to Madeleine Schaberg, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai. They’re also all over-the-counter treatments; for similar sinus issues doctors typically prescribe nasal spray medications containing steroids and antihistamines precisely because they are not addictive.
“The problem with these sprays is that they work on receptors in the blood vessels of the nose, shrinking vessels to decrease swelling and clear the nose quickly,” Schaberg tells Yahoo Health. “But if you use a spray for more than five days or so, these receptors become used to the spray and it will have the opposite effect; you get rebound swelling, which will block up the nose again as blood vessels expand.”
Once this happens, it’s not like a cocaine addiction, says Schaberg, where you have a physiological “need” or craving for another fix of the decongestant. Instead, you may unconsciously use more and more of the spray, thinking it will clear your nasal passage of “congestion.” Problem is, if you’ve been using for days, you now have rebound swelling — so, although you’ll feel the urge and spray again, it won’t help you breathe for long. Your swelling will return.
In the wintertime especially, Dr. Schaberg says she sees a couple patients a week who are hooked on a spray and experiencing these issues. “It’s common, and it’s usually just due to lack of education on it,” she explains. “If they knew to just stop, it would help.”
So, if you’re a continual nasal-spray user, put down the bottle. Come clean to your doctor, who can prescribe oral steroids and other medications to decrease congestion while your sinuses are recovering from the swelling. This may take anywhere from two weeks to a month or longer, depending on how steadily you’ve used sprays.
Like Cuoco, it’s possible to need a procedure. “If you’ve used a decongestant spray every day for years, the vessels may have been restricting for so long that it’s caused a loss of blood supply to the nose,” Schaberg says. “The septum may need to be surgically repaired.”
If you are miserable and absolutely need a quick-fix decongestant spray this winter — like Afrin, Dristan or Sinex, to name a few — you have a handful of days to use it, says Schaberg. After that, no more. “They do work, and I do recommend them from time to time,” she says. “But I’ll say again: three days, and then stop. If you use more than five days, your nose will start to depend on them.”
It could be a slippery slope toward surgery… just ask Cuoco.
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