For the past week I’ve been laid-low by an awesome head cold, and by awesome I mean awful. The stuffy head wrapped in cotton feel and the giant ropes and plugs of mucus dripping down my throat only to be coughed and hacked up again. The only thing fun about it is how far I can spit a chunk of mucus after I manage to (finally) cough one up.
People were quick to offer advice.
Drink water! Hot tea! Hot tea with honey! Inhale steam! Have you ever tried a Neti Pot? Stay away from dairy!
I’ve tried all of the above and, honestly, things don’t seem to be mush different. I finally seem to be at the tail end of a cold that would have killed lesser folk and thought I’d take a stab at looking into the Science of Mucus Thinning.
First a bit about the whole mucus production factory we all carry around: our sinuses. The sinuses are cavities within the bones surrounding the nose, lined with a thin membrane that produces mucus. This mucus is normally carried along by hair cells and drains through small openings into the nasal cavity. During a cold, the mucus production of the sinuses can overwhelm this drainage system. As a result, the sinuses become blocked and before too long, you’ve got a stuffy head, along with the accompanying headache, facial pressure, and stuffed nose.
One of the problems here is that it’s easy to go from a simple head cold and stuffed nose to sinusitis, which is an infection of the sinuses. Just because sinus drainage is blocked doesn’t mean your mucus production slows down. It doesn’t, and the result is a bunch of backed-up mucus that provides a perfect place for bacteria to grow. This can cause an infection, which stimulates out immune system, which results in even more swelling and inflammation. If you get to this point, there’s a good chance you might need an antibiotic to clear things up.
So what can you do? Are there any action you can take to head off this uncomfortable cycle? The answer is simple but not easy: you need to keep the mucus flowing so it doesn’t clog everything up.
Irrigation (Neti Pot)
Nasal irrigation is flushing your sinuses with warm, salty water. it’s about as uncomfortable as it sounds. However, studies have indicated if you get started on nasal irrigation as soon as you feel that cold coming on, it can make a big difference in keeping overwhelming congestion at bay.
- Mix 1 teaspoon of salt into 2 cups of lukewarm water.
- Fill a small bulb syringe with the solution, or you can use a small pitcher called a Neti Pot. You can also buy a nasal irrigation kit with a squeeze bottle.
- Lean over your sink, insert the tip of the syringe just inside one nostril, and gently squeeze the bulb. The water will run back out the nostril (or possibly the opposite nostril) and into the sink. Use at least one full bulb of solution.Repeat the procedure in the other nostril.
- Do this 2x a day.
Yes, it’s about as gross as it sounds.
Staying hydrated can help keep mucus thin and loose, letting it drain more easily. This is easy. Drink water. A lot. Drinking water is good for you anyway, so do it. Except for trips to the bathroom every 20 minutes, this is simple. Does it actually work? I haven’t decided yet…. hang on, I’ll be right back. I have to pee.
If you live in a cold climate, chances are you use a heater. That and the fact that colder air carries less moisture means breathing in an of itself can have a drying effect, which can thicken the mucus. Obviously you can’t control the environment everywhere, but it might be worth your while to investigate using one in your bedroom.
Breathing steam can moisturize and loosen mucus. Take a nice hot shower and breath deep through your nose. No doubt you’ve seen the pour boiling water in a bowl towel method. Pour the water in a bowl, lean over it, and drap a towel over your head to concentrate the steam.
Don’t Overdo Nasal Spray
It’s easy, I know. A spritz or two of Afrin in the nose and viola! I can breath! But don’t overdo it. Used for more than just 2-3 days, and you can become dependent on nasal spray and experience rebound congestion. If you need it to sleep (and I have) use the minimum amount possible and in only one side. What happens here is that you can end up with increased swelling after the medication wears off, requiring another dose to keep you clear. You don’t want to get to that point.
The exception here is saline spray. You can by simple, unmedicated saline and use that to moisture you nasal passages. Like a quick-strike Neti Pot. Highly recommended, although be prepared to blow your nose after.
Don’t Overdo Decongestants
Decongestants typically contain pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine causes blood vessels and membranes to shrink, which can help keep nasal passages clear. Oral decongestants can also nervousness and increase blood pressure. If you already have high blood pressure, you should talk to your doctor before using them.
Antihistamines don’t help with congestion. They help with the process that can cause congestion (allergies). Antihistamines actually make mucus thicker and harder to drain. But if your congestion is caused by allergies, your doctor may still want you to take an antihistamine along with other medications, especially during allergy season. Congestion due to a cold virus is not allergy related though, so taking an antihistamine for cold congestion isn’t going to help.
I’ve been told consuming dairy, especially milk, increases mucus production. Despite and liberal application of my expert Google-Fu, I’ve been unable to confirm this. There seem to be an equal split between articles claiming dairy increases mucus production and articles claiming it doesn’t. I did find this, which sounds reasonable. That’s not to say it’s true, however…
After drinking whole milk or eating ice cream, some people mistake the residue in their mouth and throat for mucus. This is the normal creamy texture of milk fat which melts near body temperature and is not excess mucus. A study conducted by Pinnock and co-workers (1990) reported that there is no association between milk and dairy products intake and mucus production in healthy as well as rhinovirus infected individuals.
Food In General
Although there doesn’t seem to be evidence that specific foods increase mucus production wholesale, there is an association between food allergies and mucus, just like there’s an association between pollen allergies and mucus. If you consume foods that you are allergic to, you’ll experience increased mucus production. This could include foods that you might only be slightly allergic to, or foods that you don’t know you’re allergic to. Pay attention to how you feel after you consume dairy, wheat, soy, corn, potatoes, cabbage, bananas, sugar, preservatives, food additives, nuts, and excessive salt and meats. If you find yourself stuffed or hacking up phlegm, you might have a food allergy.
Alcohol causes vasodilation (dilation of you blood vessels). This can aggravate nasal congestion. It’s probably a good idea to lay off the sauce if you’re sick anyway. Also be wary of the sulfites in wine. Some people are sensitive to them, and drinking wine will quickly cause congestion.
Some natural Solutions
Cayenne pepper: Capsaicin, the active compound in cayenne peppers, may thin the mucus and stimulate the sinuses.
Onion: Cooking with fresh onions can help open and drain your sinuses. Onions also contain quercetin, a chemical compound with antihistamine properties that can aid in reducing inflammation and nasal congestion.
Ginger: Research from a 2008 study published in International Immunopharmacology suggests that ginger can modulate the immune response to inflammation associated with allergic asthma. Be careful though. Using ginger as a spice in cooking is harmless, but using it as a supplement could have unwanted side effects since ginger has been know to have interactions with with other drugs, such as blood thinners like coumadin and aspirin.
Garlic: Garlic’s contains the compounds allicin, S-Allyl cysteine, and ajoene, which can improve mucus flow and reduce congestion through their mucus thinning and anti-inflammatory properties.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats with anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce immune dysfunction and help alleviate allergy-related conditions.
Dietary Polyphenols: A 2010 study published in American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy has demonstrated that dietary polyphenols, such as gingerol, quercetin, and EGCG, can inhibit the secretion of mucus from respiratory epithelial cells while maintaining normal nasal ciliary motion.
Vitamin C: The antioxidant Vitamin C can help alleviate symptoms because it counteracts histamine, the substance contributes to inflammation, runny nose, sneezing, and other related symptoms.