Sinus Congestion and Nasal Irrigation

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

It’s that time of year when we tend to suffer from colds, flu and sinus problems.

Whatever triggers your stuffy nose can also lead to head pain and discomfort, and when the membranes lining your nasal passages begin producing excess mucus they become enflamed and irritated. Welcome to cold and flu season.

Some over-the-counter options may help but cause unwanted side effects. For effective, more natural relief, many health care practitioners recommend flushing your nasal passages with a special saline solution to keep them moist and ease inflammation. This ancient nasal treatment  is gaining more followers for good reason: Research shows it reduces congestion and sinus pressure and helps you breathe easier, say experts from the University of Wisconsin Department of Family Medicine.

Nasal irrigation is an ancient remedy  

The practice of nasal irrigation likely originated in India as an Ayurvedic medical tradition which introduces a solution into one side of the nose and allows it to drain out from the opposite nostril. This practice flushes thick mucus out of the nasal cavity while bathing the inside of the nostrils with moisture, which helps remove dried mucus that may have formed.


Both chronic and acute conditions that cause upper respiratory symptoms can be treated with nasal irrigation. It can reduce cold, sinus and flu symptoms including:

  • Stuffy nose
  • Sinus headache 
  • Facial pain due to sinus pressure
  • Thick mucus difficult to expel.

Many people who take prescription medications for chronic sinus problems find nasal irrigation helpful in reducing their symptoms, and studies show that those who irrigate daily also use antibiotics and nasal sprays less often. While over-the-counter nasal decongestants and antihistamine/decongestant combinations can cause side effects such as increased heart rate, dry mouth and sleepiness and/or excitability and insomnia, nasal irrigation is a natural way to treat cold and sinus problems. Unless otherwise instructed by a physician, most people can perform nasal irrigation daily as needed.

Benefits of nasal irrigation

Irrigating the nose treats congestion and thins the mucus in the nasal cavity, helping it flow out of the nose more easily and reducing pain and headache. It also helps the cilia, the small hairs in the nose, function more efficiently to move mucus out. Irrigation may also flush out bacteria and allergens such as pollen and dust, which can reduce discomfort.

Nasal irrigational instructions

There are various devices available for nasal irrigation, including a neti pot or a bulb syringe. You can also find electronic nasal irrigation systems over the counter. Solutions can be purchased over the counter and/or made at home. Some allow you to mix a packet of solution with your own water while others come premixed to use with sterile water.

If the quality and safety of your water is in doubt, use distilled water or tap water boiled and then cooled to room temperature to reduce the risk of introducing microscopic pathogens. Surface water should not be used for nasal irrigation.

Most devices require you to lean over a sink and introduce the solution into one nostril at a time, here’s how to do it safely:  

  • While pouring the solution into one nostril, breathe through your mouth to reduce the risk of inhaling the solution into your lungs.
  • The solution should flow out the other side of your nose. Blow your nose after use to help remove mucus.
  • Repeat the process in the opposite nostril.
  • You may need to adjust how much you tilt your head to keep the solution from going down your throat.
  • Clean all parts of the irrigator thoroughly after each use to prevent bacterial contamination; some products are dishwasher-safe.

Take the next steps

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, most people tolerate nasal irrigation well with fewside effects. When side effects do occur, they’re usually minor like slight stinging. Nasal irritation can develop in some instances, especially if you perform irrigation more than once a day.


Learn the proper technique for the device you choose to reduce the risk of side effects. For example, when squeezed too forcefully, some squeeze bottles may cause a feeling of fullness in the ears. Use caution if you tend to experience nosebleeds as well.

Although it’s always best to check with your personal physician, nasal irrigation can generally be used on most people regardless of existing medical conditions or age. It may take some practice to get the technique down for best results, but nasal irrigation appears to be a safe and effective treatment for symptoms of upper respiratory conditions.

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