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posted: 12/2/2013 7:00 AM

Relieve postnasal drip with these simple treatments

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Q: The worst part of a cold for me is the postnasal drip that lasts for weeks. Can I do anything to stop it?

A: I'm also a frequent sufferer from postnasal drip, so I'm pleased to say there are treatments that can help.

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Postnasal drip is discharge from your nose and sinuses that drips down the back of your throat. If it were coming out through your nostrils, you'd call it a "runny nose."

Following colds, the discharge typically is thin and white. If you get a sinus infection, the discharge can be thick and colored yellow, brown or green.

One of the first things to try is a saline spray. Saline washes remove mucus, irritants and allergens from your nose and moisturize your nasal passages. Many saline sprays are available over-the-counter.

To use these products, gently squirt the saline solution into each side of your nose while you're bending over the sink or standing in the shower. The solution should flow into one nostril and out the other. You may rinse your sinuses as needed, depending on your symptoms.

Also try filling a basin with hot water and inhaling the air just above the surface. And use a humidifier at night.

Nasal irrigation is a little more complicated. But it is also very effective in clearing the thick mucus: (1) Mix 1 teaspoon of pure salt (no additives) in 8 ounces of warm (not hot) water. (2) Draw the saltwater mixture into a syringe. (You can get one at your local drugstore. One type has a bulb shape. The other looks like something you'd see in a doctor's office. Neither one has a needle.) (3) Insert the tip of the syringe in one nostril. Lean over the sink. Push gently. The solution may drain from either nostril or from your mouth. Repeat two or three times per day.

Decongestant sprays may help. They shrink swollen membranes in your nose and in the passages from your nose to your sinuses. That allows the discharge to drain out of the sinuses and nose.

But limit your use of decongestants to three to four days; using them too often can cause a reaction that makes membranes get swollen again, making postnasal drip worse.

Decongestant pills such as pseudoephedrine may work. But in some people, decongestants can dry out the nasal passages, making mucus thicker -- just what you want to avoid.

Each person responds differently to these treatments. You will need to figure out what works best for you: saline spray, irrigation, a short course of a decongestant or a combination.

The human anatomy contains many wonders. The gut miraculously breaks food down into the tiniest pieces so that we can digest nutrients. The cells in the kidney and liver eliminate dangerous toxins from our body. The heart and circulation provide energy to every cell in our body, every minute of our waking and sleeping life.

Then there are the sinuses. Do they serve any useful purpose? Or were we given them just to keep us humble?

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com.

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