Things You Can Do to Try to Clear Your Sinuses

<p>katleho Seisa / getty images</p>

katleho Seisa / getty images

Medically reviewed by Benjamin F. Asher, MD

Sinus congestion—swelling in the lining of the nose—can uncomfortable and at times, painful. Along with making breathing through your nose difficult, congestion often comes with sinus pressure and pain. This inflammation of your nasal passages can be caused by exposure to allergens and irritants, as well as viruses, fungi, and bacteria. Everyday substances like pet dander, polluted air, smoke, and dust can also lead to congestion.

Nasal congestion and sinusitis are among the most common reasons people see healthcare providers in the United States. It is also one of the leading causes of antibiotic prescriptions, even though antibiotics are only suitable for bacterial infections. Since most cases of congestion are caused by irritants or viruses, using home remedies can often help alleviate symptoms.

How to Clear Your Sinuses

Nasal congestion is often caused by minor irritants or viruses, and typically clears on its own. There are a few methods you can use at home to ease congestion symptoms and sinus pain.

Perform a Saline Rinse

Saline rinses—running a salt water solution through your nasal passages—can offer relief from congestion without medication. You can purchase saline rinses in the store, or make them at home.

To make a saline rinse at home, mix 3 teaspoons of iodide-free salt with 1 teaspoon of baking soda and store in a clean, airtight container. When you are ready to clear your sinuses, add 1 teaspoon of the mixture to 8 ounces (1 cup) of lukewarm distilled or boiled water.

Once you have the mixture prepared, follow these steps to perform a saline rinse:

  1. Use a soft rubber bulb syringe like an infant nasal bulb or a neti pot, which is a device that looks like a small teapot.

  2. Draw the saline solution up into the bulb.

  3. Tilt your head downward over the sink and turn to the left.

  4. Squeeze approximately 4 ounces of solution slowly into the right nostril. The solution should come out through your left nostril.

  5. Turn your head and repeat the process on the left side.

  6. If needed, adjust your head so the solution does not go down the back of your throat or in your ears.

  7. Once finished, blow your nose to prevent the solution from going into your ear and causing discomfort.

You can rinse with saline several times per day. When making your saline rinse solution, it is important to only use distilled, sterile, or previously boiled water. Direct tap water may contain bacteria and other organisms that can potentially cause serious infections in your nasal passages. 

Engage in Yogic Breathing or Humming

Yogic breathing, a deep breathing practice, may be an inexpensive, risk-free approach to treating congestion. Research shows integrating the regular practice of Bhramari pranayama, or a humming breathing technique, along with traditional management of chronic congestion is more effective than conventional treatment alone.

Here is how to add humming breathing into your daily routine:

  1. Begin in a comfortable seated position like sitting cross-legged on the floor.

  2. Relax your face and jaw and breathe in and out through your nose as deeply as you can.

  3. Block out any noise or sounds by placing your pointer fingers on the cartilage of your ears.

  4. Take a deep breath making a humming or buzzing sound on the exhale. (Keep your ears blocked.)

  5. Continue this process for at least six cycles of breath.

  6. Practice this type of breathing twice daily for at least 15 minutes each time.

Breathe In Diffused Oregano Oil

Oregano oil is well known for its antimicrobial activity, as well as its antiviral and anti-fungal properties. It may also help clear your sinuses. Here's how to best use the oil to relieve congestion:

  1. Fill your sink full of hot water or use a pot full of hot water.

  2. Make sure the water is cooled enough to be safe for your skin; steam that is too hot can burn.

  3. Add a few drops of oregano essential oil.

  4. Put a large towel over you head and the water to create a tent.

  5. Take a few deep breaths.

Overall, oregano oil is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but you should not inhale it if you are allergic to oregano. Though rare, there have been some reports of allergic skin reactions to oregano.

Use Steam

Healthcare providers often recommend using steam to relieve nasal congestion, but research is mixed on the effectiveness of this treatment. If you want to try steam therapy to improve your symptoms, the safest method is to turn on the hot water in the shower and sit in the bathroom and inhale the steam.

You can also breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water. However, there is a risk of experiencing burns from steam that is too hot, so it's important to be careful when inhaling steam in this way. Experts recommend inhaling steam two to four times a day for results.

Try Complementary Therapies

If you have chronic congestion, you may want to experiment with complementary therapies, which are therapies that offer an additional benefit to standard treatment. Many of these approaches target both the mind and body, such as tai chi, yoga, and acupuncture.

For instance, research shows acupuncture as well as consuming supplemental capsaicin (chili pepper extract), bromelain, and butterbur extract may be effective at treating congestion.

A review of studies found acupuncture was more effective than conventional treatment in treating chronic congestion. Acupuncture was also associated with improved symptoms and a better quality of life, without any serious side effects.

However, complementary therapies are meant to be used alongside traditional methods, and research is limited on how effective these therapies are alone. Talk to a healthcare prover to determine what is right for you.

Other Things To Try

Finding ways to thin or loosen the mucus in your nose will help it drain and relieve your symptoms. Here are some other home treatments you can try when you are struggling with congestion:

  • Apply a warm compress or moist washcloth to your face several times a day.

  • Avoid flying when you're congested, if possible.

  • Drink plenty of clear fluids like water.

  • Avoid sudden changes in temperature.

  • Keep your head elevated, especially when sleeping.

  • Use a humidifier in your room while sleeping.

  • Try adhesive strips that are placed on your nose to widen your nostrils, making breathing easier.

Related: The Best (and Worst) Cold and Flu Medicines, According to Experts

Medications for Congestion

There are both over-the-counter and prescription medications that may help alleviate some of your nasal congestion. Some of the drug options for congestion include:

  • Decongestants: Over-the-counter spray nasal decongestants such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) or neo-synephrine (Sudafed) should be used sparingly. These drugs can provide quick relief at first, but using them for more than three days can worsen your congestion and lead to dependence.

  • Antihistamines: Unless your congestion is caused by an allergy, antihistamines may not help alleviate your symptoms.

  • Nasal steroids: Your healthcare provider may recommend nasal steroid sprays to reduce swelling in your sinuses and ease symptoms, especially if you have polyps (small, benign growths in the nasal lining). These sprays are typically used for eight to 12 weeks.

  • Painkillers: Pain relief medications will not relieve congestion, but they can help alleviate the pain you feel from sinus pressure and congestion. Typically, ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help relieve pain.

  • Antibiotics: If a bacterial infection is causing your nasal congestion, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic. These medications cannot treat viral infections. When taking antibiotics, it's important to follow the dosing instructions and finish all the medication unless a healthcare provider advises otherwise.

Keep in mind many over-the-counter medicines contain more than one drug. Read every label carefully to ensure you don't take too much of anything. Also, talk to a healthcare provider about which medicines are right for you—especially if you have underlying health issues.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

Your congestion will typically resolve on its own with home remedies, but occasionally complications will arise. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should contact a healthcare provider as soon as you can:

  • Having a fever that lasts three to four days

  • Experiencing severe symptoms, such as facial pain or severe headaches

  • Displaying symptoms that are getting worse instead of better

  • Having symptoms that have not gone away after 10 to 14 days

  • Experiencing symptoms that over-the-counter medications do not resolve, like headaches

  • Swelling of the forehead, eyes, side of the nose, or cheek

  • Noticing a change in vision or blurred vision

A Quick Review

Being congested—including having sinus pain and pressure—can be very uncomfortable. There are several things you can to do at home to alleviate these symptoms. For example, using a saline rinse or practicing deep breathing have been shown to relieve congestion.

Certain medications may also help reduce sinus pressure and ease congestion. If your symptoms continue to worsen, or you develop a fever, pain, or swelling, you should see a healthcare provider immediately.

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