Each year, more than 30 million Americans suffer from headaches, facial pressure, and nasal congestion caused by sinus infections. If an infection is particularly severe, antibiotics may be necessary. But maybe not.
“Just because you have sinus symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have an infection,” says Andrew Lane, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Sinus Center in Baltimore. "But if more than a week goes by and your symptoms worsen rather than wane, you might have a bacterial sinus infection."
There are many nondrug options that can help prevent and relieve sinus symptoms. Here are 10 popular choices.
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Breathing in dry indoor air—particularly common in wintertime—can really stuff up the nose, thicken mucous, and irritate the sinuses. But a fine mist from a humidifier may help. "Being in an environment that's more moist makes the nose happier and less congested," explains Dr. Lane.
In terms of sinus relief, a 3-ounce bottle of salt water may provide just as powerful a punch as a gallon-size humidifier. Saline mist sprays work like humidifiers because they can moisturize your nose when you are in a dry environment. However, they are definitely more portable, Dr. Lane says.
You can supply your nose with soothing saline spray ($6; walgreens.com), or for even less if you want to mix the simple concoction at home (about a pint of lukewarm water per teaspoon of salt).
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The neti pot—think a small teapot crossed with Aladdin's lamp—takes the saline spray a step further, Dr. Lane says. In addition to the moisture introduced by pouring water in one nostril and out the other, the ancient Ayurvedic apparatus also has the force to flush out irritants that may contribute to symptoms.
The pots are made out of both ceramic ($11; amazon.com) and plastic ($12; amazon.com), and can be found at most drugstores. Just make sure to use sterile or distilled water, or boil water for 3 to 5 minutes and let cool, the FDA warns, to kill any potentially dangerous germs.
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Moist sinus compress
Some people claim to find sinus relief by placing a warm, steamy wrap over their face. But could the benefit simply be in their head?
"I think the compress just feels good," says Dr. Lane. He adds that a moist compress may still provide some helpful humidification for the nose and relieve sinus pressure. While not necessarily mainstream, you can find various versions on the Internet, including this sinus compress ($20; amazon.com), which targets moist heat therapy to the forehead and around the eyes, where sinus pain and pressure typically strike.
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Herbal inhalation or aromatherapy
Inhaling herbs or aromatherapy products that have herbs like rosemary, eucalyptus, and peppermint may help relieve some symptoms of sinus congestion. However, the mechanism of these therapies is unclear, Dr. Lane says.
Breathing in mint, for example, provides a cooling sensation usually associated with air flowing through the nose quickly—as if it were wide open. "Even though you feel like you’re moving air," explains Dr. Lane, "there’s no evidence that you’ve actually increased the size of the nasal passage."
These herbal products, including inhalation beads that contain a combo of eucalyptus, peppermint, and lemongrass ($11; amazon.com), can be found at natural food stores and online.
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Over-the-counter decongestants such as Sudafed are "good stuff," according to Dr. Lane. The medications work by shrinking blood vessels that cause the nose to be stuffy.
Due to their drying effect, however, Dr. Lane recommends drinking a lot of fluids or using a saline spray when taking decongestants. The drugs—such as Sudafed ($10; amazon.com), Mucinex ($11; amazon.com), and Tylenol Sinus ($5; amazon.com)—can be found in most supermarkets and drugstores.
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Nasal irrigation system
Basically just a sophisticated version of the neti pot, a nasal irrigation system works through a combination of humidifying and rinsing actions—but with an added pulsating feature that aims to clear thick mucus out of nasal passages more thoroughly.
The contraption is usually pricier than a neti pot or a nasal spray. This SinuPulse Nasal Irrigation System (amazon.com) costs about $80.
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Medicated nasal spray
Over-the-counter medicated nasal sprays such as Afrin ($17 for 3; amazon.com) work very well as short-term decongestants, says Dr. Lane. But if the spray is used for more than three or four days straight, the body can start to require more of it, more often, in order to continue benefiting from its symptom-relieving effects.
Prescription steroid nasal sprays such as Flonase can reduce inflammation without the same rebound issues.
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Steam therapy is a "very potent" decongestant, says Dr. Lane. "It's probably why a bowl of chicken soup works so well." (Check out our 7 Healthy Chicken Soup Recipes.)
A hot shower may offer the same humidifying help, or you can invest in a product specifically designed for the purpose, such as the Vicks VapoTherapy Personal Steam Inhaler ($29; amazon.com).
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Irritants and common allergy-provoking substances in the environment, including dust, smoke, and mold, can also trigger sinus inflammation. An air purifier may add a secondary line of defense for the nose, which itself acts as a protective filter to airborne particles.
This device can help with irritants that might induce inflammation, says Dr. Lane. Many home and appliance stores carry a range of air-purifying products, like the Honeywell HEPA Clean Tabletop Air Purifier ($47; amazon.com) and the Blueair HEPASilent Air purifier ($200; amazon.com).