Sinus congestion (also called nasal congestion or rhinitis) involves blockage of one or more of the four pairs of sinus passageways in the skull.
The blockage may result from inflammation and swelling of the nasal tissues, obstruction by one of the small bones of the nose (deviated septum), or from secretion of mucus. It may be acute or chronic. Acute sinus congestion is most often caused by the common cold. Sinus congestion caused by the common cold is not discussed here. Chronic sinus congestion often results from environmental irritants such as tobacco smoke, food allergens, inhaled allergens, or foreign bodies in the nose.
Sinus congestion leads to impaired flow of fluids in the sinuses, which predisposes people to bacterial infections that can cause sinusitis. At least two serious disorders have been associated with chronic nasal congestion: chronic lymphocytic leukemia and HIV.1 2 For this reason, chronic nasal congestion lasting three months or more should be evaluated by a medical professional.
What are the symptoms of sinus congestion?
Sinus congestion typically causes symptoms of pressure, tenderness, or pain in the area above the eyebrows (frontal sinus) and above the upper, side teeth (maxillary sinus). Other symptoms include nasal stuffiness sometimes accompanied by a thick yellow or green discharge, postnasal drip, bad breath, and an irritating dry cough.
Dietary changes that may be helpful for sinus congestion
Food allergy appears to play an important role in many cases of rhinitis, which is related to sinus congestion. In a study of children under one year of age with allergic rhinitis and/or asthma, 91% had a significant improvement in symptoms while following an allergy-elimination diet.3 In the experience of one group of doctors, food allergy was the most common cause of chronic rhinitis.4 Two other researchers have found food allergy to be a contributing factor to allergic rhinitis in 25%5 and 39%6 of cases, respectively. Food allergies are best identified by means of an allergy-elimination diet, which should be supervised by a doctor.
Lifestyle changes that may be helpful for sinus congestion
The most common cause of nasal congestion is allergy to inhalants, such as pollen, molds, dust mites, trees, or animal dander. Exposure to various chemicals in the home or workplace may also contribute to allergic rhinitis. Indoor and outdoor air pollution may also be a factor in susceptible people. Smoking and secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke have been implicated in chronic nasal congestion7 and the prevalence of chronic rhinitis among men has been shown to increase with increasing cigarette consumption.8 People exposed to chlorine, such as lifeguards and swimmers, may also be at risk of developing nasal congestion.9
Careful evaluation by an allergist or other healthcare professional may help identify factors contributing to nasal congestion. Sometimes strict avoidance of the triggering agents (e.g., thoroughly vacuuming house dust or using dust covers on the mattresses) may provide relief. Where complete avoidance of irritants is not possible, desensitization techniques (immunotherapy [allergy shots]) may be helpful.
Nasal irrigation with warm water or saline may be helpful for reducing symptoms of sinus congestion, although steam inhalations appear to be less useful. In a study of people suffering from the common cold, steam inhalation did not improve sinus congestion any better than placebo.10 In a similar controlled study, irrigation of the nasal passages with heated water or saline, decreased nasal secretions, although inhalation of water vapor did not.11
Herbs that may be helpful for sinus congestion
Eucalyptus oil is often used in a steam inhalation to help clear nasal and sinus congestion. Eucalyptus oil is said to function in a fashion similar to that of menthol by acting on receptors in the nasal mucous membranes, leading to a reduction in the symptoms of nasal stuffiness.12
Are there any side effects or interactions with sinus congestion?
Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.
Holistic approaches that may be helpful for sinus congestion:
Acupuncture may be useful for decreasing chronic sinus congestion. In one clinical study, most participants experienced at least temporary relief after acupuncture needles were inserted alongside the nose.13