Nasal irrigation, (also termed as nasal rinsing, washout, douching or lavage) is a personal hygiene practice in which a person’s nasal cavity is washed with saline water to flush out debris and mucus from the nose and nasal sinuses.
Nasal douching can be performed safely by people of all ages to support daily nasal hygiene. The practice is reported to have good beneficial outcomes with only minor side effects. It works best to relieve symptoms of dry, thick, and crusty mucus.
Recent case report about the death of a 69-year-old female from Seattle, due to a brain infection by a rare group of amoeba Balamuthia mandrillaris (primary amebic meningoencephalitis) has created a panic among patients regarding the safety of nasal irrigation.
In this article, we are discussing the purpose of nasal irrigation, the medical indications, the pros and cons of it and the method of practicing safe nasal irrigation at home.
How nasal irrigation works?
During normal breathing, micro-organisms like bacteria, viruses, pollen, dirt and dust particles are trapped inside the nasal cavity by the tiny hair cells and the mucous secretions within the nose. This is a natural defense mechanism of the body to avoid entry of harmful organisms into body.
In patients with chronic sinusitis, allergy, etc. the consistency of mucus is harder and thick, preventing natural clearance of these trapped pathogens. When this transportation through the nose becomes slow, inflammation can increase as a result of mucus stagnation which will further lead to frequent sinus infections.
Nasal irrigation helps in thinning out the stagnant mucus and makes its natural clearance easier. It also helps in flushing out of bacteria, allergens and other irritants from the sinus passages.
Medical Indications for nasal douching
Following are some of the most common medical indications for regular nasal douching.
- After nasal surgeries: Surgeries inside the nasal cavity like endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS), Septoplasty, etc. makes the surface raw and sore. This causes dry, crust and scab formation. Nasal douching can help in removing these crusts and scabs from the nasal cavity.
- After epistaxis (nose bleeds): Nasal douching helps in removing crusts formed after nasal bleeding.
- Rhinitis: Patients who suffer from acute or chronic rhinosinusitis, allergic or seasonal rhinitis can keep their nasal airway clear and free from allergens and debris and prevent infection by regular douching. Nasal irrigation has often been used as both a solo and an adjunctive treatment in chronic sinus problems.
- Mucociliary dysfunctions: Patients with mucociliary dysfunction diseases (Cystic fibrosis, Kartagner syndrome, etc.) rely on frequent nasal irrigation to clear the clogged nasal passages and to breath freely again.
- Frequent nasal douching is advised in some special conditions like – treatment of rhinitis in pregnancy (where medications are contraindicated), atrophic rhinitis, empty nose syndrome, etc.
- Nasal irrigation is often advised 10-20 minutes before using other medications like corticosteroid nasal spray. This will increase the efficacy of other drugs as it ensures that your sinuses will absorb the medicines you take.
Devices and Solutions
Wide range of product types are available for performing nasal irrigation and to make the whole procedure easier. These include bulb syringe, squeeze bottle or neti pot, and battery-operated pulsed water devices. With the basic devices, the user has to manually pour or spray a mixture of salt and water into one nostril. In higher-end models, the solution is propelled into the nose, allowing the user to control the spray and pressure.
Neti pots (see below) are the most commonly used devices. They look like little teapots with long spouts. Neti pots rely on gravity and head position in order to rinse the sinus cavities. The fluid flows through one of the nasal cavities and comes out through the other nostril.
Most commonly distilled/sterile saline solution is used for nasal washing. But many people prefer to use tap water because of the easiness and low-cost availability. In a Canadian study, it was found that half (48%) of patients in a Canadian rhinology practice use tap water for rinses, with “convenience” being the most common reason tap water is used.
Direct tap water should not be used because of the chance of infections associated with it. Tap water may contain microorganisms like bacteria, protozoa, amoebas, etc. These microorganisms may be safe to swallow because stomach acid kills them; but when used in nasal cavities, these organisms can stay alive in nasal passages and may cause potentially serious infections.
If using tap water, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has given the following recommendations:
- First preferred choice: Use boiled, lukewarm water – boil the water for 3 to 5 minutes and then cool until it is lukewarm. Previously boiled water can be stored in a clean, closed container for use within 24 hours.
- Second preferred choice: Use special filters – those filters which are labeled “NSF 53” or “NSF 58” or “absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller” or contain the words “cyst removal” or “cyst reduction”.
Some manufacturers of nasal rinsing devices recommend using a 0.2-micron absolute pore size. Follow the manufacturer recommendations if 0.2-micron absolute filters are recommended.
- Third preferred choice: Use disinfected water – Chlorine bleach used at the right level and time will work as a disinfectant against Naegleria germ. More details on how to disinfect water to ensure it is safe from Naegleria can be found from the CDC website.
Things needed for Homemade nasal irrigation.
- Teaspoon, Measuring jug, Mug, Tissues
- Distilled / Boiled tap water that has been cooled down to room temperature: 240ml.
- Table Salt (non-iodised): one quarter of a teaspoon (1.25mL)
- Bicarbonate of soda (sodium bicarbonate) – often referred to as baking soda is sold from the cooking section of most general food stores: one-quarter of a teaspoon (1.25mL)
- Access to a sink.
- Additional ingredients like sodium borate etc as advised by the practitioner in special situations like empty nose syndrome, atrophic rhinitis, etc.
How to do nasal douching?
Nasal douching can be performed in the morning and/or evening, or more frequently if the patient has a severe rhinosinusitis infection or as advised by the practitioner.
The information included with the irrigation device might give more specific instructions about its use and care. In general, the following procedure can be adapted for safe and efficient nasal irrigation.
- Wash your hands, clean with soap, and dry before holding any correctly treated water.
- Measure out the dry ingredients into a measuring jug.
- Mix the dry ingredients with 240mL of the water well.
- Ensure the dry ingredients have dissolved before proceeding and ensure the solution is room temperature.
- Lean over the sink, keeping your head bent forward; this will close and block the back of your throat to prevent swallowing or choking on the solution.
- Method 1
- Bring a mug of the solution to nose.
- Sniff a small amount of the fluid into the nose for approximately two to three seconds. Alternatively, use cupped hands pouring the solution into hand and sniff from hand. Do not sniff large amounts of liquid / do not swallow the liquid.
- Take the nose away from the mug and allow the liquid to run back out of nose into the sink.
- To cleanse both sides of the nasal cavity it may be necessary to block each nostril alternatively as you sniff.
- Method 2
- Rotate your head (about 45 degrees) so that one nostril is above the other.
- Gently insert the spout of the nasal irrigation pot (Neti pot) into the uppermost nostril so that it forms a comfortable seal. (Do not press the spout against the “middle”, or septum, of the nose).
- Breathe through your mouth and raise the handle of the filled nasal irrigation pot so that the solution enters the upper nostril and drains through the lower nostril.
- Repeat the procedure, tilting your head sideways, on the other side.
- Method 3
- Using a squeezy bottle is a high-volume, low-pressure system. The solution is squirted into one nostril allowing it to run out of the other nostril and has been found to be a very effective delivery device.
- Stand in front of the sink, bend forward and tilt your head face down about 45 degrees so that you are looking down into the sink.
- The mouth is kept open to breathes through whilst performing the process.
- Method 4
- A twenty ml syringe (without needle) may be used to squirt the solution into the nose rather than sniffing it up.
- Method 5
- A douching spray is a ready-mixed solution in a canister needing no preparation.
- Do not worry if you swallow some of the solutions as it will not cause you any harm.
- Repeat the irrigation steps several times as tolerated, using up as much of the solution as possible. Your nose may run naturally after nasal douching; this should be expected since the natural cleansing processes of the nose will be stimulated by douching.
- After nasal douching, blow your nose into a tissue. Do this gently so as not to cause overstimulation or damage inside your nose.
- Rest your nose for 10-20 minutes before using any treatment spray. If a nasal treatment is used while your nose is running, the treatment spray will be washed out of your nose, reducing its effectiveness.
- Rinse the irrigation device after each use and dry the inside with a paper towel or let it air dry between uses.
- Repeat multiple times in a day.
- If any solution remains, do not keep it for longer than 24 hours.
- Do not store the solution in the fridge or heat it in the microwave.
- Nasal irrigation is often advised 10-20 minutes before using another medication like corticosteroid nasal spray. This will increase the efficacy of other drugs as it ensures that your sinuses will absorb the medicines you take.
- If you are living in an altitude of above 6500 feet, the water needs to be boiled for longer than 3 minutes.
- A stronger hypertonic solution may be required for some patients, such as those with chronic rhinosinusitis infection. This solution can be made by doubling the salt and bicarbonate of soda content to 2.5mL for each ingredient and mixing them with 240ml of water.
- Once a week, sterilize the bottle with 1:1 water + hydrogen peroxide or 1:1 water + bleach.
Benefits of nasal irrigation
Following are some of the benefits of nasal irrigation.
- Nasal douching helps in clearing the clogged nasal passages, reduces nasal congestion.
- Nasal irrigations remove irritants, debris, and particles that keep the passages and airways blocked.
- Moisturize and soothe dry, irritated nasal membranes.
- Prevents upper respiratory tract infections.
- Improve sense of smell and taste
- Get rid of thick mucus and reduce congestion in the nose.
- Helps sinuses drain freely to eliminate bacteria, viruses, contaminants, irritants, and allergens.
- Minimize coughing and postnasal drip.
- Reduces snoring.
- Nasal irrigation reduces the need for Functional Endoscopic Sinus Surgeries (FESS) and CT imaging in cases of chronic rhinosinusitis.
Cons of nasal irrigation
The most commonly reported adverse events of nasal irrigation include post-irrigation nasal discharge and initial discomfort. Rare cases of nosebleeds and stinging have been reported. These adverse effects are usually well tolerated. Many studies have concluded that the benefits of nasal irrigation outweigh its adverse effects.
Though not proved scientifically, in a presentation at the annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI), researcher Talal M. Nsouli explained that daily long-term nasal rinsing may create more harm than benefits. The idea behind this finding is that, by washing the nose, the good mucus which contains the antimicrobial agents also gets flushed out which can result in increased frequency of acute infections. Irrespective of this, Nsouli doesn’t advise stopping nasal irrigation altogether. He only suggests using it in moderation.
The most dreaded complication, reported in association with the use of nasal douching was a risk of amoebic brain infections when the water is not sterile, or the device is not cleaned after use. The pathogenesis of this disease centers on the migration of amoeba along the olfactory neuroepithelial tract leading to intracranial infection, and which is nearly always fatal.
Four amoeba genera are known to be associated with human disease: Acanthamoeba spp, Balamuthia mandrillaris, Naegleria fowleri, and Sappinia diploidea.
In 2018, a lady from Seattle was reported to have contracted Balamuthia mandrillaris after using tap water during nasal irrigation. Although the source of the infection has not been proven in the case of this lady, it is speculated that it came from the tap water she used in her neti pot for nasal irrigation.
Naegleriasis is a very deadly infection. Of 133 people known to be infected in the United States from 1962–2014, only three people have survived. Of these, two infections were reported from Louisiana in 2012, due to use of contaminated tap water for nasal irrigations. One case of primary amoebic meningitis from N fowleri was reported in the US Virgin Islands in 2012 after ablution during prayer that included nasal rinsing with well water and rainwater.
No cases of amoebic meningitis from nasal irrigation with Acanthamoeba or Sappinia as the causative pathogen have been reported.
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J.S. Yoder, S. Straif-Bourgeois, S.L. Roy, T.A. Moore, G.S. Visvesvara, R.C. Ratard, et al. Primary amebic meningoencephalitis deaths associated with sinus irrigation using contaminated tap water Clin Infect Dis, 55 (2012), pp. e79-e85
- Smith, T. L., Beswick, D. M., Kennedy, D. W., Ramakrishnan, V. R., & Soler, Z. M. (2019). Deadly amoeba infections from nasal and sinus irrigation: how should we discuss with our patients? International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology. doi:10.1002/alr.22294
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