When the air fills with pollen, Larry Aerni plugs his nose — with water.
Using a neti pot, a vessel that looks like a miniature tea pot, has done much to alleviate his allergies, Aerni says. Based on a principle taken from the ancient Indian health system called ayurveda, a neti pot pours liquid into the nasal passages, clearing them of mucus and reducing inflammation.
"When the pollen's heavy ... to wash out my nasal passages ... seems to reduce my symptoms," Aerni says.
The 69-year-old Medford resident says he can't remember where he heard about nasal irrigation but he knows it wasn't through mainstream medical channels. Using a neti pot containing a baking-soda solution seemed like it couldn't do any harm and might do some good, Aerni says.
Twenty years later, nasal irrigation is commonly prescribed by ear, nose and throat specialists, says Dr. Jonathan Lee, a practitioner at Oregon Ear Nose and Throat Center in Medford.
"It's something we use all the time," Lee says. "It has a very high probability of symptom relief."
More than 2,000 medical studies revealing the benefits of nasal irrigation have lead physicians to recommend it to sufferers of chronic sinusitis, Lee says. The method, which flushes virus particles from the nasal passages, also is an effective means of administering medication, Lee says, adding that every patient who undergoes sinus surgery follows up with irrigation.
Although about 80 percent of his nasal and sinus patients practice irrigation, most are faced with a learning curve and a natural aversion to water entering the nose, Lee says, likening the experience to very young children becoming accustomed to brushing their teeth.
"The first few times you use it ... it's pretty horrible."
But in seven years of practice, Lee has had only a handful of patients who can't tolerate nasal irrigation.
"They usually actually start to like it," he says.
Instead of a neti pot, which is gravity-fed, Lee suggests using a plastic squeeze bottle, which packs a little pressure behind it. A baby bulb syringe also can be used, he says.
The water should be as close to body temperature as possible and, ideally, boiled beforehand. Lee advises against using well water. Some nasal irrigation solutions come premixed, but a weak saline solution mixed up from common table salt does the trick.
In addition to saline, teas steeped from medicinal herbs are used in neti pots, usually on the advice of an ayurvedic practitioner who determines which herbs are most complementary to a person's "dosha," a way of defining one's humors or energies according to the elements. General, all-purpose tonics that can be added in small quantities to neti pots are ground turmeric — known to reduce inflammation — and licorice root powder, says Dana Bader, a certified ayurvedic practitioner who gives classes on the use of neti pots at Koru Health Center in Eugene.
"Neti is becoming more known," Bader says.
Appropriately, Bader started offering classes during last winter's cold and flu season.
"Your mucus membrane is considered the first part of your immune system," Bader says. "Imagine if you had a filter in your home, and you never cleaned it."
Keeping the filter lubricated and nourished is another teaching of ayurveda. Bader tells clients to dab a little melted ghee, or clarified butter, on their fingertips and gently swab it inside the nasal passage. Ghee has properties that resemble the myelin sheath coating nerves in the human body, Bader says.
"To do that is to nourish the nerve on a very deep level."
Nervous-system complaints and chronic dryness also can be alleviated with another form of nasal irrigation, the application of medicated oils called "nasya" in the ayurvedic system, says Noah Volz, a certified practitioner at Ashland's Inward Bound Wellness. Volz tells his clients to try nasya after they've cleansed the nasal passages with saline, usually at night so tissues can more easily absorb the oil while clients are lying down.
"There is that fear factor surrounding it, like most things that people have never tried," Volz says. "People who have never done it before totally squawk at the idea of sticking a teapot up their nose."
Yet skepticism evaporates along with congestion and post-nasal drip, experts say. And the benefits of nasal irrigation aren't just limited to breathing easier. Aerni says it relieves headaches that he believes are allergy-related. Immediately after using his neti pot, he enjoys a heightened sense of taste and smell.
"Tea in the morning tastes more robust."