The “good bacteria” in our gastrointestinal tracts has gotten a lot of attention lately, but our guts aren’t the only places that host good bacteria. Our noses, sinuses and nasal passages contain similar colonies of beneficial bacteria.
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The bacteria in these areas are starting to move into the spotlight as more research is done on the positive impacts those bacteria can have in preventing the bad bacteria from colonizing and the negative impacts that result when we destroy the good bacteria.
“There are a lot of bacteria that colonize our nose and throat that are supposed to be there,” says head and neck specialist Michael Benninger, MD, chairman of the Head and Neck Institute at Cleveland Clinic. “But primarily due to overuse of antibiotics, we have changed the colonies in our nose to bacteria that are more harmful.”
Among these are bacteria that lead to some of the common staph, streptococcus pneumonia, H-flu, sinusitis and strep throat infections that regularly plague people, he adds.
Steps we need to take to foster the good bacteria
Preserving the good bacteria starts with a more conservative use of antibiotics. That means physicians are now less likely to prescribe antibiotics to treat infections that don’t always warrant their use.
“The principles of sinus therapy, particularly since many people were being treated for viruses where antibiotics aren’t helpful anyway, are to avoid antibiotic use, unless it is very clear that it is a bacterial infection,” explains Dr. Benninger. “That will allow our normal bacteria to recolonize our nose, nasopharynx and throat so they can fight infections naturally.”
Prevention is the key
Right now, the best steps you can take are related to prevention of infections, including the following:
Work with your doctor to determine whether or not you have a bacterial infection. “We shouldn’t treat infections with an antibiotic until 10 to 14 days after the onset,” Dr. Benninger says. “If it’s viral, it will be self-limited and will run its course, so if you treat it with an antibiotic, it just increases the likelihood of colonizing bad bacteria by killing the good bacteria with the antibiotics.”
Wash out the bad stuff yourself. Use saline irrigation products like a neti pot to clear out some of the bad bacteria and fungus in your nose that can cause inflammation.
Use over-the-counter treatments to relieve the symptoms. Taken at the onset of symptoms, products such as Nasacort® will help reduce inflammation and mucus production and can shorten the course of the viral infection. Nasal decongestants like oxymetazoline (Afrin®) can help you breathe better.
Keep your hands clean. Wash your hands or use a hand cleanser. Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth.
Take long-term preventive steps to avoid getting these infections. Do aerobic exercises and get plenty of rest and proper hydration. According to Dr. Benninger, people who do aerobic exercise on a routine basis strengthen their immune system. This makes them a third less likely to get a cold, virus or bacterial sinusitis in the first place.
The future health of our noses
Like gut flora, good nasal flora will eventually have probiotics to help nourish and cultivate them. Some of these products are already in use in Europe. However, they have not yet been approved in the United States because of the more stringent FDA regulations.
“Right now, we’re in preventive mode,” Dr. Benninger says. “But within the next 5 to 7 years, we will likely be using probiotics in the nose and sinuses, similar to what we do in the GI tract.”