Combating Dry Winter Air: Three Simple Ideas for Relief
Meredith Murray, ND
It’s that time of year! As the air gets colder and drier, we turn up the heat inside our homes and offices to stay warm. As the humidity decreases in winter, many of us become familiar with dry winter skin, but the linings of the nasal passages and throat are suffering as well.
When your nasal passages dry and crack (aside from the discomfort and nose bleeds) you lose a critical protective barrier. Your body needs the sticky wet mucus to trap invaders such as viruses and bacteria so it can expel them. As nasal passages dry out, that important barrier becomes compromised, leading to more colds and infection.
Additionally, if someone suffers from asthma or allergies, the dry air combined with blowing dust from heaters or smoke from fires can cause difficulty breathing, and may even cause an asthma attack.
The good news is that there are three simple things you can use to help combat these winter woes.
Humidifiers are a great invention that literally put humidity back in to the air during naturally dry times like winter. However, they can pose a significant health risk if they are not maintained properly. Because humidifiers are designed to stay warm and wet — it makes them a prime location for bacteria, fungal and mold growth.
Dirty water or a dirty humidifier can actually worsen allergy or breathing issues. Make sure to keep humidifiers away from furniture or anywhere that could promote fungal growth on its nearby surfaces. Using distilled or demineralized water in place of tap water can cut down on deposits which lead to bacterial growth.
If you choose to use a humidifier to help sooth your respiratory system, make sure to follow the manufacturer directions and clean and disinfect them regularly. As with most household items, you want to balance safety and usefulness while minimizing environmental waste. If you do not need to use a humidifier regularly, and only need it for occasional use, there are humidifiers that use most store bought single serving plastic water bottles as the water receptacle. They are able to be used a few times, but then the bottle is recycled before it can develop any harmful growth. These types are also portable and can go with you when you travel.
If your home has a wood stove, people often place a pot of water on top which naturally evaporates over the course of the day to create moisture in the air.
Nasal sprays are a direct way to moisten the nasal passages. There are a few different types that each contain different main ingredients: saline, xylitol, and zinc.
Saline (salt water) nasal sprays have been recommended for many years. They moisturize and can also help clean out allergens. There are saline sprays that can be purchased over the counter, as well as in the form of a Neti Pot which rinses out your nasal passages. Both can provide needed symptom relief.
Xylitol nasal sprays (we carry a great one called XLEAR) uses the sugar alcohol xylitol as the active ingredient. Xylitol is hydrophilic and can pull water to the cell surface which is soothing and moisturizing and helps prevent attachment of microbes, allergens and pollutants that are inhaled. It is a non-fermentable sugar and therefore bacteria cannot use it as a fuel source. One study out of Stanford actually found that xylitol irrigations result in greater improvement of symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis as compared to saline irrigation1. While this a great resource for humans, it should be known that xylitol is not safe for pets/animals to ingest.
Zinc nasal sprays were popular for some time because of studies that had shown that zinc can help prevent colds. However, it has been shown that zinc as lozenges or in a syrup are likely better routes for this. There are documented issues with nasal sprays containing zinc causing temporary loss of smell, which resulted in an FDA warning on this. While zinc can be a helpful mineral, it is recommended to use only orally at appropriate doses.
Even though you’re not sweating like in the summertime, maintaining adequate hydration in the winter is crucial for the mucous membranes. Hydrating helps keep the skin and linings of your nose and throat moist and decreases potential for cracking.
If drinking a cold glass of water in sub-zero temperatures does not sound pleasant, consider possible options like: drinking warm, or room temperature water; adding fruits to water for flavor; drinking herbal teas. I personally like teas with ginger in them during the winter because its a very warming herb. There is something that is very comforting and healthy about sitting with a warm cup of tea on a cold day, and breathing in the aromatic steam — possibly next to a humidifier as well!
1. Xylitol irrigations result in greater improvement of symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis. Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Stanford Hospital and Clinics, Stanford, California, USA.