December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Flow pressure

By |2018-03-21T18:36:20+01:00April 15th, 2009|Features Archive|
I've suffered allergies and all-around sinus blockage for most of my life.

t began with YouTube, and a video called “How To Irrigate Your Nasal Passages.” A hirsute, Allen Ginsberg stunt-double prepares a small ceramic pot with salt water, upends it and — voila’ — begins to pour the water in one nostril and out the other. Feat accomplished, he repeats the exercise with black coffee, and then with single barrel bourbon, all against a trancelike chorus of “I like to hear the rain come down.” Until the whiskey comes splashing out of his nose like water from a blowhole, and despite the incongruous facial expressions suggesting pain, it seems like a pleasant experience.

April is the cruelest month…T.S. Eliot must’ve been suffering from hay fever when he wrote that line. Like many Americans, I’ve suffered allergies and all-around sinus blockage for most of my life. I’ve even had surgery to straighten a severely deviated septum, which did nothing but drain my mother’s bank account. I’ve struggled with pseudoephedrine, nasal sprays of every kind, breathing strips, Claritin… all to no avail.

Every year I become more desperate. Every year I become more convinced that no solution exists except another attempt at surgery (an opinion backed up by the last doctor to stare up my nose with a flashlight), which is understandably out of the question.

Leaving New York was the first step. I really believed that not living in Metropolis would have been good for my sinuses, but I discounted the small matter that Roman air quality is not much better than that of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rome, it’s true, has many parks which pump oxygen into the air and make the city livable — to a degree. But it’s not as if the blanket of green were spread evenly across town. If you live near one of Rome’s huge villas (Pamphili, Ada, Borghese) you’re in luck. If you live along the Via Casilina, however, you’re more likely to see Central Park in June than any of Rome’s green wonderlands year-round.

Even so, spring time is pollen time, and pollen is in many ways more bothersome than car exhaust. In tandem, however, they are deadly. Sleeping has become almost impossible, despite a comfortable new mattress. I’m desperate for a short-term solution.

I don’t believe in miracles. Nor do I waste many words praying for them to occur. But desperation has a way of stoking the irrational in all of us. So I went to the local health food store and asked for a white ceramic pot — called a neti pot — like the one in the YouTube video. Online research had been overwhelmingly favorable, so I decided to give it a shot.

The neti pot blew into town out of nowhere a few years ago after an appearance on “Oprah.” Naturally, I braced myself for a Secret-style sham, albeit an inexpensive one (about €15). The neti has a long pedigree, however, having been used for millennia by yoga practitioners in India. After the Oprah debut, America went neti crazy, skyrocketing the little vessel from yoga-fringe obscurity to Walmart in about a week. The New York Times wrote it up, and hundreds of people uploaded themselves on YouTube with a conspicuous white nozzle stuck up their noses. I felt I’d missed some cultural watershed, like The Twist or Pokemon.

The whole thing works by creating a “subtle vacuum” for “suitable flow pressure,” in the words of Your head must be tilted at roughly a 45 degree angle. The water then shoots up one nostril, swishes up into your sinuses, and pours generously out the other. Often it is followed by gobs of colored mucus, ostensibly washing away various toxins and irritants. The water must be saline, or slightly salted. Some people recommend adding baking soda, or even mouthwash.

The first time I “nettied,” if you will, was disastrous. Water splashed all over the bathroom mirror and dribbled down my chest. Half an hour later a second stream came oozing out of my right nostril onto my shirt.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. There is the sensation of drowning for about a second. Salty water comes trickling down your throat and out your mouth. When it’s over, there is a feeling of having loosed a tide of phlegm. Maybe you feel cleaner in your schnoz, but that’s about it.

When I began experimenting with the neti pot, I also began to broadcast the results (and lack of them) to my friends and family. I became obsessed with solving my sinus war. Suddenly, it seemed everyone I knew had a neti pot, or had used one. Some people swore by it. Friends were giving and receiving them as gifts. Almost everyone had a story: “It helps when you feel a cold coming on. It relieves allergies. It saved my life.”

I continue to neti daily. I still want to be persuaded by the majority of fellow sufferers who have found relief in this little ceramic wonderpot. In short, I want to believe in a miracle. But three weeks after I thought I had found my own personal fountain of youth, I remain a skeptic. The neti pot has not made me sleep better. It has not unblocked my sinuses. It has not saved my life. And that’s nothing to write home about.

About the Author:

Marc Alan Di Martino runs a small language school in Perugia where he teaches English as a Foreign Language. He wrote the "Man About Rome" column from 2008 through June 2013.