Sick of waking up with throbbing sinuses? Improve your indoor air quality today with these quick fixes.

By Betsy Stephens
January 02, 2013

breath-easier-winterCorbisFrom a stuffy head to that whistling in your nostrils, breathing's no breeze this time of year. "When your nose is exposed to cold, it runs," period, explains Michael Benninger, MD, chair of the Head and Neck Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.

That's because our nasal passages are designed to warm and humidify air before it gets to the lungs. In colder temperatures, the nose overcompensates by producing extra mucus. It can thicken when exposed to the dry air outside and irritate your throat or your sinuses, those hollow cavities behind your nose and forehead. Take a deep breath (if you can): Relief is right in front of you.

Step 1: Clear your head

Get steamy. Nose and sinuses stuffed up? Step into a quick, hot shower—the steam can loosen up congestion.

Rinse out your schnoz. Dry air can irritate the membranes and blood vessels inside your nose, resulting in gross and sometimes bloody (but normal) little crusties. Keep conditions moist by using a drugstore saline spray every day, or rubbing a dab of unscented, alcohol-free body lotion inside your nostrils, Dr. Benninger suggests. (Avoid petroleum-based products, which can cause nasal tissue to swell over time.)

To better flush out that dry mucus, upgrade to a neti pot. Fill it only with distilled water to avoid potentially dangerous bacteria, and steer clear if you're completely congested—otherwise, water can get trapped in your sinuses and cause infection.

Sleep smarter. First, Dr. Benninger says, lie on your back. Then pull your head forward as if you were going to smell the air. Place a pillow under your head and neck, so your neck stays angled at about 15 degrees. This will keep your nose elevated above your heart; gravity can decongest it naturally.

Step 2: Transform your indoor air

Beat bugs. It may not seem like prime allergy season, but "some of the most common allergens, like pet dander and dust mites, are generally found indoors," notes Travis Stork, MD, a host on The Doctors and an ER doctor in Los Angeles.

If you're getting watery eyes and an itchy nose, use an air purifier with a HEPA filter. Leave a window cracked open during the day to circulate air and dilute allergens. Wash bedding on the hot cycle once a week, and encase your box springs, mattresses, and pillows in covers designed to protect against dust mites.

Hydrate at night. Every time you exhale, moisture escapes your nose and throat, says Gene Alford, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the Methodist Hospital in Houston. We can make up for that by drinking water while we're awake, but not so much when we're asleep. This means we often wake with a painfully dry nose and mouth, especially in winter. Your best defense? A cool-mist humidifier. (Why not a warm-mist unit? They can be drying over time and lead to nasal swelling, especially when used all season long.) Follow the manufacturer's instructions for cleaning to keep it germ-free.

Change your air filters. If you heat your house with forced air, particles like dust, pollen, and dander can collect on the filter, so switch yours out every six months. Dr. Benninger also suggests having your air ducts professionally cleaned every two to three years, especially if you're allergy-prone.

Step 3: Drink up

Guzzle H2O. Water will keep your nose and lungs lubricated. Tea works, too. The heat dilates the blood vessels in your nasal passages, then constricts them, temporarily decongesting you. Skip hot toddies, though (sorry!): Booze is dehydrating.

Just add ginger. It's an age-old remedy that really works: Columbia University researchers have found that compounds in the plant relax constricted airways, relieving congestion. Add it to soups and stir-fries, or sip ginger tea.