I held the clear plastic bottle filled with warm saline solution up to my right nostril, leaned over the sink, closed my eyes and thought, “It’s come to this?”
My family has always been plagued with bad sinuses. One of my earliest childhood memories was of my mother whispering in the darkened hallway outside the closed master bedroom, “Be quiet. Your father has one of his headaches.”
I didn’t understand what she meant. “His headaches?” What was so special about his headaches? On those days, your best bet was to go outside rather than face the wrath of dad opening that bedroom door holding a red hot-water bottle to his temple.
I must have been seven or eight when I suffered my first sinus headache. I remember sitting in the way back of the family station wagon as we drove through the night back home after a family vacation at my grandparents’ house in the Ozarks. It felt like someone had taken a seven-inch stainless steel needle and painstakingly pushed it into my left eye socket and kept pushing until metal met skull bone, and then pushed some more, sending pulses of blood-red agony through my head. The pain was inescapable and got so bad that I began to cry, which caused something to release inside my head, allowing what felt like a gallon of fluid to pour out when I blew my nose. And just like that, my headache was gone.
I couldn’t believe it. The relief made me giddy and I almost started laughing. When I told my mom what happened, my dad said knowingly without turning his eyes from the road, “It’s sinus.”
Through the years that phrase — “It’s sinus” — became a catch-all mantra for anything that ailed us. Head cold, flu, strep throat, back ache, it didn’t matter. Any mention of any pain and my dad would conclude “It’s sinus.”
It wouldn’t be until I got older that I realized that yes, in most cases it was, in fact, my sinuses, but it also was a cold or flu or the most probable reason of all, my allergies. No doubt what ailed me over the past week has been a combination of a summer cold and an extreme allergic reaction caused by sleeping with the windows open on these unseasonably cool evenings.
My allergy attacks are usually confined to one day of rapid-fire sneezing followed by a day of faucet-like post-nasal drip and one of my dad’s headaches. But after that, I’m usually fine.
Not this time. It started with a sore throat on Wednesday, followed by sneezing on Thursday and that stuffed-up, foggy feeling on Friday that hung around through the weekend as the pestilence began moving toward my chest. My usual steady diet of Ibuprofen, little red pills and knock-off Claritin had only resulted in a constant state of jitteriness.
It was at this point that I finally broke down and considered my wife’s solution: a “sinus rinse,” or as it’s more commonly known: a neti pot.
The idea wasn’t a new one. I’ve had a couple hippie friends over the years suggest using a neti pot as a “holistic” solution to my sinus problems. “They use them all the time in India,” they told me. “Neti pots are as common in their culture as Kleenex is in ours.”
I gave it as much consideration as their other hair-brained ideas, like “ear-candling” and yoga. I couldn’t imagine sticking the spout of what looked like a little plastic tea pot into my nose and pouring water into my head. In addition to being disgusting, it went against common sense. You blow fluid out your nose, not pour fluid into it. I imagined choking on the solution or having water get caught somewhere inside my head only to make matters worse.
Still, my wife began doing it over a year ago as a last resort with her sinus problems, and lo and behold it worked. What could go wrong? We headed to Walgreen’s and found the all-in-one kit in the “cold and allergy” aisle. Inside the $15 box was the bottle, tube and nozzle, along with 50 tiny packets of saline nasal rinse powder.
I first watched my wife do it — something I’d managed to avoid over the past year. She leaned over the sink with her bottle and sprayed the liquid into her right nostril. Moments later, water began to pour out the other side, along with a long string of bubbly clear snot. She blew her nose and proceeded to squirt water up the other nostril.
I waited until after dinner before I took the plunge. She stood next to me as we mixed the powder with warm tap water. The directions said to only use distilled or purified water, but an EMT had told Teresa Omaha’s water is more than clean enough for the procedure. I put my finger over the hole in the nozzle and shook the bottle, then leaned over the sink and paused.
I remembered that scene in the James Cameron movie The Abyss when Ed Harris donned special diving equipment to undergo “liquid breathing.” His spacesuit-like helmet filled with some sort of oxygenated water that he had to “breath in.” All of his basic instincts screamed “Don’t do it!” but by sheer act of will, he did. It was a leap of faith.
I closed my eyes and squirted. The warm water filled my nose and then my sinuses. Making sure that I didn’t breathe it in, I still felt a drip of salt water burn in the back of my throat as the saline began to drip then pour out my other nostril. I expected something akin to a green Buick to drop out of my nose, but instead… nothing. It wasn’t until I blew my nose that I got a golden surprise.
About five minutes later, my head began to feel better. Not like that night driving back from the Ozarks, but better. I could tell the swelling in my sinuses had begun to subside, if only for the moment. Maybe this neti pot thing actually works. Could I have avoided years of needless suffering by merely taking the advice of my hippie friends? I’ll let you know as soon as I get this candle out of my ear.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.