Health Tips / Sinusitis

In my town, doctors refer to it as the “Denver drip,” but of course the “Chicago crud” or “Manhattan mucus” serve just as well. In fact, that decidedly unpleasant, back-of-the-throat, thick-as-molasses post nasal drainage is simply your sinuses, endlessly trying to empty themselves. What with clogged heads, tickly coughs, constant nose blowing, and voices perpetually needing a “harrumph!” to clear them, it’s little wonder that sinus sufferers are willing to undergo repeated surgeries for temporary relief. Or borrow somebody’s old antibiotics. Or fantasize about plunging a Craftsman power drill up their nostrils.

If you’re looking for a comforting thought in all this, I can tell you that you’re probably not going to die from chronic sinus problems. On the other hand, don’t look for sinusitis to enrich your life much, either. Instead, let’s see how our WholeHealth Chicago approach can help.

What is Sinusitis?

The sinuses are four pairs of openings in the front of the skull, which are located above, behind, and below the eyes and are connected to the inside of the nose. Normally these cavities are empty, and their lining produces mucus, which routinely clears away dust, pollen, other inhaled particles, and bacteria. The mucus drains harmlessly into the nose or the back of the throat, and from there it flows into the stomach, where stomach acids destroy any dangerous germs.

However, when the sinus lining becomes inflamed, tissues can swell. The cells produce a very thick mucus, which is unable to drain properly through the small sinus channels and openings. The pressure that builds up can result in headache, a sense of congestion, pain around the sinus areas, and other symptoms. If the swelling doesn’t subside so that the mucus can drain, bacteria can also breed and thrive.

Sinusitis can be acute or chronic. Acute sinusitis is usually the result of bacterial infection, and it can cause fever and chills as well as severe facial pain and swelling around the eyes. Dental discomfort is also a common complaint. Chronic sinusitis is usually a response to a persistent inflammation of the mucous membranes. Symptoms are usually milder, but can recur frequently.

Key Symptoms

  • Painful headache in the front of the face, particularly around the eyes
  • A sense of pressure and fullness
  • Runny nose and congestion
  • Postnasal drip
  • Frequent coughing and throat clearing
  • Swelling of eyelids or pain behind the eyes
  • Pain in the upper jaw

What Causes Sinusitis?

Sinusitis may occur as a complication of an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or the flu, that spreads to the sinuses. Acute sinusitis is typically caused by a bacterial infection. An infection can also cause chronic sinusitis to develop, though there is now evidence that many chronic cases are caused by an immune system response to naturally occurring fungi carried in the nose.

Chronic sinusitis can also occur when the linings of the sinus cavity are irritated by:

  • Prolonged allergy attacks
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke, dust, or airborne pollutants
  • Swimming in polluted water
  • Spread of an infection from an abscess of an upper tooth
  • Deviated nasal septum or polyps in the nasal cavities
  • Overuse of nonprescription nasal sprays or antihistamines.

Treatment and Prevention

If your symptoms are especially painful or you?re not sure whether they’re part of a chronic condition, it’s always a good idea to consult a physician, who can determine if your sinusitis is caused by a bacterial infection. This may require treatment with prescription antibiotics. But even conventional practitioners are beginning to question the universal application of antibiotics and other drugs, especially for people with chronic sinus conditions that don?t stem from bacteria. In addition, antibiotics won’t help prevent future sinus infections.

For relief of sinus pain, conventional doctors may also recommend nonprescription pain relievers such as aspirin or ibuprofen–and they may suggest using antihistamines when sinusitis attacks appear to be triggered by allergic reactions.

Conventional therapies may only be effective in the short-term, however. Alternative remedies for chronic sinusitis are targeted at relieving pain, draining blocked or swollen sinuses, and strengthening the immune system to ward off infection. A number of vitamin and herbal supplements can help in all these respects, and self-care remedies–such as using hot compresses to relieve sinus pressure–can also be very beneficial.

Acupuncture and craniosacral therapy are alternative modalities that have been quite successful at clearing the sinuses and relieving nasal congestion and pressure.

Rarely, for severe sinus problems, surgery may be recommended to drain or repair sinuses.

How Supplements Can Help

Dietary supplements that act as immune boosters can be taken on a daily basis. These include echinacea, vitamin C, and flavonoids, to which you can add an antioxidant complex that contains vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, and more.

Until symptoms disappear, the amino acid NAC (N-acetylcysteine) and an herbal decongestant containing ephedra can be very helpful in easing breathing and clearing nasal passages. An anti-inflammatory supplement (bromelain) can be added to help reduce discomfort.

Washing the sinuses out with a saline solution that contains goldenseal may help the body combat viruses, bacteria, and fungi.

Get supplement dosages and tips in our WholeHealth Chicago Supplement Recommendations for Sinusitis.

Self-Care Remedies

It’s important to drink lots of water or other fluids–six to eight glasses daily–to loosen impacted mucus. Soup, tea, or other warm liquids can be especially soothing.

To help thin mucus, heat water in a pan. Place a towel over your head, lean over the pan of hot water, and inhale the steam. Adding a few drops of eucalyptus oil to the water will enhance this effect.

Apply a hot compress (a moistened warm hand towel or wash cloth) to your face. The heat “opens up” sinuses to relieve pressure.

Reduce or avoid drinking alcohol; it has a dehydrating effect that can make mucus dry and thick.

A sinus irrigator, which you can purchase in drug stores and health-food stores, can be used to clear out sinuses with saline solution.

Avoid air-borne irritants, especially secondhand smoke, that can inflame sinuses. Use an air purifier in your home, if necessary, to control irritants. If indoor air is dry, which can aggravate sinusitis, use a humidifier.

When to Call a Doctor

If any of the following symptoms of acute sinusitis appear:

thick yellowish green mucus or bloody nasal discharge
thick, persistent postnasal drip
fever (101° or more) and chills
severe facial pain or swelling and redness around the eyes
continual coughing or other severe respiratory symptoms
worsening of symptoms after a week’s trial of at-home treatment.
If you develop symptoms more than three times a year
Also check with your doctor if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, arrhythmias, or glaucoma before you use any prescription or over-the-counter decongestants.

Supplement Recommendations

From David Edelberg, WholeHealth Chicago: The vitamins and herbs we recommend for sinusitis are especially valuable for anyone who suffers from recurrent sinus problems. None of these supplements has any of the irritating side effects, such as dry mouth or jitteriness, that often accompany antihistamines, decongestants, or other conventional medications commonly prescribed for sinusitis.

How to Take the Supplements

If your sinus congestion begins to flare up, immediately start using the immune boosters echinacea and vitamin C as well as the herbal decongestant.

If the mucus drainage is very thick, consider adding N-acetylcysteine, or NAC, (a mucus thinner) and bromelain (an enzyme) but don’t forget regular steam inhalation with a little eucalyptus oil. If you have access to a neti pot or a sinus irrigator, use it as well to help clear away the infected mucus. Morning and evening, add a teaspoon of goldenseal liquid extract to the irrigation solution to make a useful natural antibiotic.

On a preventive basis, use echinacea three weeks of every month during the cold and flu season. If you’re really troubled with a lot of sinus infections, regular irrigation of your sinuses is highly recommended.

Of special interest

If flare-ups of your sinus congestion can be associated with stress, considering adding the herb kava (250 mg 3 times a day) for several days.

If you’re female and your sinusitis seems to predictably worsen during the week or so before your period, then treating your PMS may also benefit your sinuses. An good solution is a PMS herbal combination (two capsules twice a day starting 10 days or even longer prior to flow, and stopping during actual menstrual flow itself). It will probably take two cycles for maximum benefit to be apparent. The Healing Path for Sinusitis provides more extensive therapeutic information about this condition.


We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.

Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.

For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD