A runny nose, persistent headache and a feeling of overall fatigue seem to be keeping constant company with you lately. Is it a cold? It could be, but it could also be something else – sinusitis.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, sinusitis is the most chronic disorder in the U.S. Typical symptoms, including headache and congestion can be easily confused for those of the common cold, particularly other not-so-typical symptoms sometimes reported with sinusitis, such as a sore throat and low-grade fever. But, sinusitis does have some unique characteristics. Pressure and a feeling of fullness around the eyes, cheeks and forehead, a thick green or yellow mucus discharge or pain the jaw or teeth are all good indicators that sinusitis has taken hold.

What Sinusitis Is (And Isn’t)

Many people think that the term “sinusitis” suggests “infection.” But, the word “sinus-itis” literally translates to mean an inflammation of the sinuses. How do the sinuses become inflamed? Before that question can be answered, it’s important to understand how they work.

There are four sets of sinus cavities situated around and behind the eyes and nose: the frontal, sphenoid, ethmoid and maxillary. At birth, they are each the size of a pea, growing larger as we mature into young adulthood. (In fact, the frontal pair doesn’t appear until around the age of eight and the maxillary isn’t fully developed until the late teen years.) Healthy sinuses contain little but air, but are lined with mucous membranes that filter impurities, such as dust and bacteria, before excreting mucus into the nose via tiny ducts. The mucus then drains to the back of the throat and is swallowed into the stomach. From here, acids destroy any invading bacteria. Since this is a normal bodily function, this ongoing process usually goes unnoticed, but you may be surprised to learn that the rate of mucus exchange in an average adult is between one pint and one quart every day.

Are Your Sinuses Sick?

Sinusitis develops when the membranes of the sinuses or nasal passages become inflamed and swell, interfering with the drainage of mucus. Inflammation and blockage can occur from any one of a long list of factors, including injury, anatomic abnormalities, bacterial infection, allergies, air pollution, smoking, dental complications, environmental and occupational exposure to toxins and emotional stress. Since very few of us are not affected by at least one of these triggers, it becomes clear how easily our sinuses, the first line of defense in protecting our lungs, can become “sick.” In fact, according to Robert S. Ivker, D.O., author of Sinus Survival (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam), “Sinus disease has become an epidemic.”

There are two classifications of sinusitis – acute and chronic. Acute (severe) sinusitis is the result of infection and often follows a lingering head cold. In chronic sinusitis, inflammation persists for three months or more, possibly with periodic episodes of acute sinusitis.

The conventional approach to acute sinusitis usually involves antibiotics, decongestants and antihistamines, but not without complications. Antibiotics, for instance, may help to clear up a bacterial infection, but do nothing to prevent re-infection of the inflamed mucus membranes. Antibiotics also upset the balance of “friendly” bacteria in the intestines, and can further compromise an already stressed immune system. Antihistamines cause excess mucus to thicken, making it more difficult to expel and could lead to additional blockage. Decongestants promote drainage, but their stimulating action can cause anxiety, insomnia and elevate blood pressure.

So, what’s a sinusitis sufferer to do? Prevention is always more valuable than cure, and the secret to successfully overcoming sinusitis lies in management. Since allergens are a leading cause of inflammation, the body’s immune system plays a key role in keeping the sinuses healthy.

Herbal Immune Boosters

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) is an anti-inflammatory and heads the list of immunostimulators. One of the primary constituents of echinacea is inulin, which stimulates the production of macrophages and T-cells. Echinacea also inhibits hyaluronidase, an enzyme produced by bacteria attempting to pierce the protective barriers of mucus membranes to invade the body.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis candensis) contains berberine, an alkaloid with antimicrobial qualities effective against a variety of pathogens, including staph and strep. Goldenseal also contains hydrastine, another alkaloid with immune enhancing properties that promotes mucus flow.

According to John P. Painter, Ph.D., N.D. of Arlington, Texas, nettle (Urtica dioica) is very effective in treating respiratory disorders due to allergic reactions. “The use of this offensive weed to some,” he says, “has been a boon to others suffering allergic reactions to mold, fungus and pollen.” As Dr. Painter points out, nettle is rich in vitamins and is a good source of butyric acid. Butyric acid is an important short-chain fatty acid that is essential for a healthy metabolism.

Another herb Dr. Painter often uses in his practice to help sinusitis sufferers is licorice. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) contains glycyrrhizin and aglycone glycyrrhetin, agents that stimulate the adrenals and inhibits inflammation. Licorice also increases the half-life of the adrenal hormone cortisol, thereby increasing its anti-inflammatory action. But as Dr. Painter cautions, this herb may not be suitable for everyone. Licorice can cause sodium retention, potassium loss, and interfere with certain heart medications.

Other Tips

· Get Steamed - Using a humidifier or vaporizer will provide moisture to thin mucus and encourage drainage. Frequent steam baths, or even making a tent with a towel while standing over a pan of hot water can also help.

· Essential Oils - The addition of eucalyptus or peppermint oils (6-8 drops) to the vaporizer or steam water, or 1 drop placed on a tissue and inhaled, or 2-4 drops placed on a hot compress and held over the eyes and nose, can also help to thin mucus and clear sinus pathways.

· Think Hot – Consume liberal amounts of alliums, such as garlic and onion to enhance mucus secretion. Horseradish will get things moving too. (Note: Check with your physician if you are diabetic since high doses of garlic can inconsistently raise or lower blood sugar levels.)

· Go Green – Reduce or eliminate animal products from your diet which are high in arachidonic acid that leads to the production of leukotrienes, an allergy trigger 1,000 times more potent than histamine.


All dosages given should be taken three times daily.


150 - 300 mg. capsule form

0.5 - 1 gram dried root, prepared as tea

½ - 1 tsp. (2-4 ml) fluid extract in 1 cup water


250 – 500 mg. capsule form

2 – 4 grams dried root, prepared as tea

½ - 1 tsp. (2-4 ml) fluid extract in 1 cup water


250 – 500 mg. capsule form

1 – 2 grams dried root, prepared as tea

¼ to ½ tsp. fluid extract in 1 cup water


250 – 500 mg. capsule form

1 – 2 grams dried root, prepared as tea

¼ to ½ tsp. fluid extract in 1 cup water


1. Ivker, Robert S., Sinus Survival, 3rd Edition (1995) Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam. (Quote from pg. 7)

2. Murray, Michael and Pizzorno, Joseph, Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 2nd Edition (1998) Prima.

3. Interview with John P. Painter, Ph.D., N.D.

Author's Bio: 

Karyn Siegel-Maier, owner of The Herbal Muse Press and HerbalMusings.com (http://herbalmusings.com), is a freelance writer specializing in complimentary therapies. She has written for many magazines, including Let's Live, Natural Living Today, Real Woman, The Herb Quarterly, Your Health, American Fitness, Mother Earth News, Delicious!, Better Nutrition, Natural Pharmacy and several web sites. She is also the author of The Naturally Clean Home and 50 Simple Ways to Pamper Your Baby (Storey Books) and has been a guest on shows such as Gary Null's Natural Living and The Deborah Ray Show. To contact, email kmaier@herbalmusings.com.