Ask The Doctor: Sinus Infections

Kick sinus infections without antibiotics.
Answered by David Williams, DC

Q. I always suffer from painful sinus infections this time of year. How can I kick them without antibiotics?

Nasal and sinus problems result in over 15 million office and emergency-room visits each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and are the fifth leading reason doctors prescribe antibiotics. Still, I’m surprised even more people don’t suffer from infections, because sinuses and nasal passages provide the perfect environments for growing bacteria: warm, moist, and dark.

Although doctors usually don’t consider sinus infections serious, they’re painful and undoubtedly irritating. Symptoms include pain or sensitivity in an upper tooth, ear, or around an eye; fever; headache; congestion in only one side of the face; and “double sickening” (you get a cold, begin to recover, then suddenly get worse as a sinus infection sets in). Although no single symptom is a clear indicator, the more symptoms you have, the more likely it is you’re dealing with a sinus infection. Fortunately, these natural solutions can offer relief.

Wash away your worries
Before using any pharmaceutical drug—or even a supplement—start with the most basic and cheapest treatment: nasal irrigation. Research shows that solutions with as little as 2 percent salt can dramatically relieve sinus infections and congestion. Just mix a pinch of salt into a tablespoon of lukewarm water in the palm of your hand. Lower your nose into your hand, squeeze one nostril shut, and sniff the solution as deeply into your nose as you can. Repeat for the other nostril. The salt stings slightly at first, so some people add baking soda to lessen the irritation, although I’m not sure this makes it any more effective.

You can also fill a neti pot with warm water and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stand over a sink, tilt your head down slightly and then to one side, about 45 degrees. Place the spout into the upper nostril and pour slowly until it fills and then begins to empty out the lower nostril. When the pot is empty, blow your nose repeatedly to clear out both sides, then refill and repeat through the other nostril. Irrigate several times a day for as long as needed, but discontinue the procedure once you clear up:

Irrigating with a saline solution every day can actually increase your risk of sinus infections, because the process removes the protective layer of mucus in your sinuses and nasal passages.

Nasal sprays also work to pump saline solution into your sinuses. I recommend Xlear, which combines xylitol—a sugar alcohol—with salt and antibacterial grapefruit seed extract. Pathogenic bacteria feed on xylitol to become less virulent, and xylitol itself helps clear excess mucus and congestion in the sinuses, nasal passages, mouth, and pharynx (the upper part of your throat, above the vocal cords).

Open up with oil
Aromatic eucalyptus oil, an active ingredient in Vicks VapoRub and Listerine mouthwash, clears even the most stubborn congestion. Put a couple drops on a tissue, and hold it near your nose; take four or five deep breaths to pull the vapors far into your lungs. If the congestion returns, replenish the oil. Another method: Spray some eucalyptus oil in your shower in the morning—the warm, moist air will enhance penetration into your breathing passages. For the same effect, put a few drops of the oil into a bowl of steaming water, cover your head with a towel, and hold your head over the bowl. If your humidifier has a cup for essential oils, put in a few drops and run the machine while you sleep.

Hum a happy tune
Believe it or not, humming can clear sinuses, no matter the cause of congestion—you can feel the vibration along the roof of your mouth and in your nasal cavity and sinuses. When you hum, the gas exchange (swapping stale, damp, infected air for fresh air) between the nasal passages and sinuses can be as high as 98 percent during one exhalation—almost a complete exchange. By contrast, the gas-exchange rate during normal exhalation is only about 5 percent. Poor gas exchange and poor circulation in the sinus cavities promote bacterial growth and infections, so I tell people prone to sinus problems to hum several times a day and watch for improvement.

Combat chronic infections
If you continually suffer from sinus infections, try a traditional German herbal formula called Sinupret Plus, now widely available in the US. This blend of five herbs—common sorrel, cowslip, European elder, European vervain, and gentian root—eases the inflammatory response in your nasal passages, reducing excess mucus production. Also, lay off all dairy for a month or so—it promotes excess mucus production in the upper respiratory tract. Just ask any serious singer if she’d dare drink milk right before a performance.


David Williams, DC, writes the monthly newsletter Alternatives. For more information, visit