A correct diagnosis requires a detailed ear, nose, and throat exam, and possibly laboratory, endoscopic (procedures that use a tube to look inside the body), and x-ray studies. Treatment varies according to the following causes:
- Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. These drugs may only provide temporary relief. In cases of chronic sinusitis, surgery to open the blocked sinuses may be required.
- Allergies are managed by avoiding the causes. Antihistamines and decongestants, cromolyn and steroid (cortisone type) nasal sprays, and other forms of steroids may offer relief. Immunotherapy, either by shots or sublingual (under the tongue drops) may also be helpful. However, some older, sedating antihistamines may dry and thicken post-nasal secretions even more; newer nonsedating antihistamines, available by prescription only, do not have this effect. Decongestants can aggravate high blood pressure, heart, and thyroid disease. Steroid sprays may be used safely under medical supervision. Oral and injectable steroids rarely produce serious complications in short-term use. Because significant side-effects can occur, steroids must be monitored carefully when used for more than one week.
- Gastroesophageal reflux is treated by elevating the head of the bed six to eight inches, avoiding foods and beverages for two to three hours before bedtime, and eliminating alcohol and caffeine from the daily diet. Antacids such as Maalox®, Mylanta®, Gaviscon®, and drugs that block stomach acid production such as Zantac®, Tagamet®, or Pepcid®) may be prescribed. If these are not successful, stronger medications can be prescribed. Trial treatments are usually suggested before x-rays and other diagnostic studies are performed.
General measures that allow mucus secretions to pass more easily may be recommended when it is not possible to determine the cause. Many people, especially older persons, need more fluids to thin out secretions. Drinking more water, eliminating caffeine, and avoiding diuretics (medications that increase urination) will help. Mucous-thinning agents such as guaifenesin (Humibid®, Robitussin®) may also thin secretions. Nasal irrigations may alleviate thickened secretions. These can be performed two to four times a day either with a nasal douche device or a Water Pik® with a nasal irrigation nozzle. Warm water with baking soda or salt (½ to 1 tsp. to the pint) or Alkalol®, a nonprescription irrigating solution (full strength or diluted by half warm water), may be helpful. Finally, use of simple saline (salt) nonprescription nasal sprays (e.g., Ocean®, Ayr®, or Nasal®) to moisten the nose is often very beneficial.