by Bill Mitchell
Chronic right-side sinusitis came as a shock in November 2008, at age 42. For weeks both sides (left and right) were blocked. I lost my sense of smell even after my left sinus cleared. An incapacitating headache lasted months. My right sinus was often totally blocked. I had previously been in very good health. I had never been to a hospital, never taken medication, no drugs, slender, athletic, normal blood sugar and pressure, no dental fillings, etc. Some hay fever, but no other allergies.
The breakthrough was finding out about baby shampoo. In less than a week of shampooing my nose, a six-month headache was gone. It recurred occasionally until I fixed environmental causes. I tried many things, but the two that mattered were replacing the household carpet and vacuuming my mattress every couple of weeks. A couple of years later, my sense of smell returned. When you regain a sense you thought was lost forever, you appreciate even the stinkiest odors!
I found out about the use of baby shampoo to treat sinusitis from the website of a UCSD professor of medicine named Terence Davidson, who died recently. [Use of baby shampoo to treat sinusitis seems to have been recently rediscovered by an Omaha journalist named Michah Mertes.] The website no longer exists, but is archived in the Wayback Machine. The Wayback Machine shows that Dr. Davidson added mention of shampoo in summer of 2008, but by the summer of 2009 had removed it. Why remove mention of the only treatment that seemed to matter?
Sinusitis treatment in the U.S. is doubly silly. First, nearly all chronic sinusitis is fungal (said the Mayo Clinic in 1999), yet antibiotics are universally prescribed, with no effect on the primary infection. Second, no one ever looks for environmental causes.
- Consulted five doctors: family GP, two urgent care, one internist, one ENT [ear nose throat]. None explored environmental causes.
- X-ray ordered by internist. Found a blob in the right sinus; ordered antibiotics, which had no effect.
- Scoped by ENT doctor. He viewed only the left sinus, because the right (the one with the problem) was too narrow to get the instrument in. Pronouncing the left side normal, he prescribed steroids, which had no effect.
- Medications prescribed in various combinations by all five docs, to no avail: antibiotics, Claritin, Sudafed, steroid inhalers, Nasonex, pain relievers.
- In my home, I sprayed bleach solution onto a small patch of mold found under my bedroom carpet.
- Replaced a leaky shower stall and mushy floorboards that had caused the mold.
- Hired an environmental consultant to look for mold in HVAC system. Found none.
- Had all acoustic ceilings removed, as they had been raining fine dust.
- Sinus rinse with saline alone. Has worked well for daily “maintenance,” but when trying fix the headache and closed sinus, was like chipping at an iceberg with an icepick.
- Sinus rinse laced with topical antibiotic (obtained under prescription, at my request, from a doctor friend who saw no harm in it — purchased pre-mixed in saline solution, from a compounding pharmacy). Not obviously better than rinse alone.
- Sinus rinse laced with topical antibiotics, administered with my head upside-down, and left to steep in the sinuses for 20 minutes. My idea here was to use the antibiotics in part to prevent the side effect of an ear infection, since some water might go into the ears when re-inverting. No ear infection, but not much sinus relief either.
- Reading about and treating biofilms with surfactants. This was a breakthrough.
- Shampoo-laced sinus rinse was the first real success.
- Repeated shampoo rinse, at intervals of 30 to 60 minutes. My idea was to let the surfactant break things up, then wash again while everything was wet and loose. This was much more effective than just once a day.
- Simplest setup: I use a Neilmed squeeze bottle and salt packets (avail in supermarkets), mixed with tap water. I use tap because I trust that our city water is clean and chlorinated. I do not use warm tap water, because water heaters are supposedly bacteria farms. I use almost a teaspoon of Johnson’s baby shampoo in 16 oz. of water. Using this much is painful — stings the nasal passage. Recently I learned that someone else gets the same relief, and no pain, using only a few drops of shampoo.
- Became more aware of a “sinus closing down” feeling. After a few months of relief, I could more keenly sense when my sinus would begin closing/inflaming/whatever, usually in response to dust exposure at home. This feeling could be used as a signal to decide what to fix next. Examples:
- When sinuses closed, e.g. while kicking up dust cleaning the garage, I tried putting on a HEPA-filtered painter’s mask (bought at Ace Hardware), to verify that sinuses promptly opened back up again. They did.
- Purchased a highly-rated (per Consumer Reports) bagged vacuum cleaner. I suspect that cheap bagless vacuums (anything you buy at Target) silt up immediately, then simply blow dust around the house. So my sinus tells me.
- Replaced the carpet, and vacuumed up the thick layer of dust beneath the carpet. Have not had a serious sinusitis recurrence since doing this.
- Began vacuuming my mattress every two weeks. Probably should replace it: even now, I can feel my right sinus start to close after a few weeks if I don’t vacuum it.
- My sofa is a dust trap. I can feel it. Vacuuming doesn’t help — it’s on the replace-soon list, but I can afford to wait because things are under control now.
- At age 45, I got my first cavity. Dentist said this was unheard of: you either get cavities before age 25, or never. Cavity immunity is hereditary; neither my father nor his father ever had any; my siblings have none, except for a few my brother got after radiation treatment for cancer. My own unusual cavity occurred in the right maxillary first molar — a tooth whose root reaches up into my troubled right sinus. I mentioned to the dentist that it seemed interesting that this cavity, which he considered so unusual, should occur in the same location, at almost the same time, as the only other medical problem I’ve ever had. He said there was no connection, and, sounding a little bored, changed the subject.
- My right nasolacrymal duct is now wider than before — air escapes from beneath my right eyelid when I sneeze. Seems benign. Amuse your friends, loads of laughs.
- Warning on ear aches: nasal irrigation with too much pressure, or laying down on your side too soon after nasal irrigation, can let water drain into the middle ear, causing ear aches. I read the warnings and was careful, but still had this problem a few times. It was a small price to pay.
- I tell other sinus sufferers how well this worked for me, but it’s hard to get anyone to try. Either they are grossed out by the process (understandable), or they have read the scare stories about fatal amoebic infections after sinus rinsing with bad tap water. These cases are extremely rare, and I believe all occurred when using untreated water in hot, humid climates. But the phrase “brain-eating amoeba” sure resonates — no one wants to try it.
- 3-week visit to the Philippines a year earlier (no obvious infection).
- 1-week camping trip in the Sierras 6 months earlier (no obvious infection).
- Exposure to smoke from the Freeway Complex Fire, the 4th largest fire in Orange County history, which partially burned a landfill, i.e. potential random toxicity. The sinusitis and headaches began within days after the fire; however, I was 10 miles downwind — pretty far.
- 1-month stay in someone else’s house in December 2008, where the central heater was later found to be leaking a trace amount of carbon monoxide. This was concurrent with the worst of the sinusitis, but it did not get better when I went back to my own home. My family stayed in the same house, with no ill effect.
- In recent years, eating crappy batter-fried restaurant food increasingly causes strange nose/throat effects, such as wheezing and temporary sinus blockage. Fried chicken at Knott’s Berry Farm is the worst — instant shortness of breath. I can think of no reason this should happen, but there it is.
Remember how baby shampoo disappeared from the UCSD prof’s website? Something similar happened at NeilMed’s website, and the reason may be a nasty side effect. This post says some people lost their sense of smell after using Neilmed’s surfactant additive. Neilmed makes my favorite sinus rinse product, which uses a squeeze bottle instead of gravity feed. A few years ago they briefly began selling a surfactant additive, but then pulled it off the market, and now have only an undated post saying the re-release is 2 to 3 years away. Maybe risk of side effects is why the UCSD guy removed it.