Upper Respiratory Infections and Xylitol

Upper respiratory infections are easily the most common health concern for children and are probably among the most common in adults as well. The garden-variety cold, ear infections in children and sinus infections in adults are just a few of the forms they can take.

All of these problems begin with a local irritant, be it an allergen like pollen, a virus or bacteria. The immune system’s most immediate line of defense is to wash the irritant out by increasing drainage. This drainage is uncomfortable, so the tendency is to use antihistamines and decongestants to relieve symptoms. However, it is not often explained that these medications block the immune system’s effort to rid itself of the irritant without providing other benefits.

Often the next step in the sequence of events is a full-blown upper respiratory infection. At this point antibiotics may be the only sensible choice, although some infections might resolve through natural treatments and others spontaneously even if left untreated.

A completely different approach involves working with the body’s natural defenses instead of inhibiting them, thereby enhancing the body’s effort to wash the irritant out work more effectively.

This can be achieved with xylitol nasal wash. Xylitol is a naturally sweet substance found in many fruits and vegetables. Its use prevents bacteria from attaching to tissues inside the nasal cavity, sinuses and throat. In essence, xylitol makes the membranes slippery and bacteria are washed safely away.

Does it work? According to Dr. A.H. Jones, assistant professor of family medicine at Texas Tech University School of Medicine: “I have been using this spray in my practice for the past two years and have seen more than a 90% reduction in ear infections when used regularly. Sinus infections are similarly reduced” (see The Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, issue 214, page 120 at www.townsendletter.com ).

In one study, Finnish researchers found that taking 8 grams of xylitol by mouth every day reduced the incidence of ear infections by about 40% (BMJ 1996; 313(7066); 1180-1184 “Xylitol chewing gum in prevention of acute otitis media: double blind randomized trial”). Note, however, that taking the xylitol in a saline nasal wash can be expected to work much better that just swallowing it as was done in this study.

In another study, also from Finland, a 5% solution of xylitol was f ound to reduce bacterial adherence by around 50 to 70% depending on the type of bacteria (Jour of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy 1998; 41:563-565 “Antiadhesive effects of xylitol on otopathogenic bacteria”).

Xylitol nasal wash can also help reduce the severity of conditions such as allergies and asthma simply because it helps drain irritants away. It is readily available at health food stores or on the internet and can be used on a daily basis for prevention or several times a day during periods of increased irritation.

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