PhotoA cold or sinus infection may send you to the pharmacy for a popular over-the-counter cold remedy. But could it be a waste of money?

Doctors at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Tex., say an ancient cold remedy that's essentially free is making a comeback in medical circles.

Nasal irrigation, or nasal lavage, is the ancient Hindu practice of using warm salt water (saline) to flush out the gunk that builds up in nasal passages and can cause irritation or infection. Dr. Donald Donovan, an otolaryngologist at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, says the practice is safe and beneficial if done correctly.

“Saline is nature’s biological medium … it helps clean out the body,” Donovan explains. “Nasal irrigation is very effective in washing out foreign substances from the nasal passages and helping to alleviate congestion.”

Close to one in seven people suffer from rhinitis, which is a fancy way to say stuffy nose. And, 36 million Americans have chronic sinus troubles. Those are the people who could benefit from simple and easy symptom relief, says Donovan.

It works

“This is one home remedy that works,” he said. “We have seen it work well in people with stuffiness, sinus pain and other chronic conditions. If you do it right, it can be very soothing and effective.”

The saline solution is simple to make: to about 8 ounces of water, add one-quarter teaspoon of kosher salt and one teaspoon of baking soda. Use kosher salt because it does not have iodine or additives which can irritate the nose; the baking soda also helps prevent irritation.

Many people use a neti pot, which looks like a teapot with a long snout, to pour saline into a nostril. Others buy plastic squeeze bottles that squirt saline into the nose; most drugstores carry both types.

Nasal passages act as the body’s air filter, trapping foreign particles and allergens before they enter the lungs. Donovan says nasal irrigation washes out those substances, as well as some bacteria which might cause infection.

Irrigation can also help those who live in areas plagued by wildfires, because smoke contains tiny particles that may affect those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

What it won't do

If all you have is a cold, nasal irrigation can make you feel a lot better, Donovan says. But if you're suffering from an allergy or sinus infection, other treatments may be required.

“You can use irrigation to clear out thick secretions caused by a cold but it won’t get rid of the infection,” he said. “You either have to use medication to reduce inflammation or let the infection run its course.”

Likewise with allergies – irrigation may help alleviate some symptoms in the short term, but Donovan says more traditional treatments are usually needed.

“Nasal irrigation is inexpensive enough to just stop if you find it’s not for you,” he adds. “Many people swear by it, because it’s safe and natural. And it is very easy.”

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