Each year thousands of people develp sinus trouble. The sinus cavities produce mucus to help keep the respiratory system free of debris. When the sinuses become inflamed or blocked, the flow of mucus is hindered and a number of painful symptoms can result.

What is it?

The sinuses are four pairs of openings in the bones at the front of the skull, located above the eyes, on either side of the nose, behind the bridge of the nose and behind the cheekbones. They are lined with a thin membrane that secretes mucus, which passes into the nose through small openings in the sinuses. Mucus sweeps away inhaled dust, pollen, germs and other matter, and then drains into the back of the throat, where it is swallowed. (Most dangerous germs are destroyed by stomach acid.)

Normally, the work of the sinuses is so subtle you don't even notice it. But the membrane can become irritated or inflamed, producing more (or thicker) mucus and blocking the tiny sinus openings. when this occurs, the sinuses cannot drain properly, which can cause headaches, a feeling of fullness in the face and excessive postnasal drip. The build-up of mucus also provides a breeding ground for bacteria.

What causes it?

Sinusitis may occur as a complication of a upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or flu. The linings of the sinuses can become irritated by smoke, air pollution or allergies as well. In addition, those who have a deviated septum or nasal polyps may also be prone to sinusitis.

What are the symptoms?

  • Pressure of headache above the eyes.
  • Feeling of fullness in the face.
  • Pain that worsens when you bend your head forward.
  • Tenderness above the sinuses.
  • Difficulty in breathing through the nose.
  • Postnasal drip.
  • Yellowish green nasal discharge.
  • Possibly fever, chills or toothache.

Are there any natural therapies?

Some cases of sinusitis – a bacteria infection, for instance – require treatment with antibiotics. However, even conventional medicine is beginning to question the universal application of these drugs, especially for people with chronic sinus conditions, which may not stem from bacteria. In addition, antibiotics don't help the body prevent future sinus infections. Supplements can be used to help clear up an acute sinus infection, even if you're on antibiotic drugs. The recommended vitamins and herbs are particularly valuable for people who have recurring sinus problems. None of these cause the side effects (such as a dry mouth) that decongestants or other conventional medicines precribed for this condition do.

One of the best ways to prevent and treat sinusitis is to strengthen the body's defences against germs. Start off by choosing one of the following immune-boosting herbs: echinacia, astragalus, cat's claw, or reishi or maitake mushrooms. For acute sinus attacks, take just one of these herbs until the infection clears up. For chronic sinusitis, try alternating each one in two-week rotations to build up and then maintain immunity.

Vitamin C and flavanoids, also immune strengtheners, offer an additional benefit for people whose allergy attacks develop into full-blown sinusitis. Both can minimise the effect of histamine – an inflammatory substance produced by the cells in response to pollen or other allergens.

A natural decongestant, the herb ephedra (ma huang) widens the blood vessels in the respiratory tract, relieving congesting and swelling. However, it should be used only for stubborn acute attacks that don't respond to other treatments, because its side effects may include nervousness, trembling, insomnia, and heart palpitations.

What else can I do?

  • Avoid cigarette smoke and excess dust.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to thin mucus.
  • Use a humidifier or cool-mist vaporiser to keep indoor air moist.
  • Place warm compresses on your face to help open up your sinuses.
  • Consider using a sinu irrigator, a device found in health-food stores and pharmacies, that uses salt water to flush out mucus.

Did you know?

In medical terminology, the suffix -itis (as in sinusitis, for example) means inflammation.