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Some Americans Fight Sinus Infections With Fewer Drugs, Healthier Lifestyles - 2003-05-17

Sinuses are hollow cavities inside the skull that filter the air we breathe. They're supposed to function effortlessly. But in the United States, sinus inflammation is one of the main reasons Americans seek medical help. Decongestants, allergy medications and antibiotics are commonly prescribed for this condition, but a growing number of health experts believe these medications are over-prescribed, leading to an epidemic of sinus infections. Some Americans are fighting back with fewer drugs and more lifestyle changes.

As a jazz band teacher, Mike Simpson helps kids, and he likes to blow his horn. But Mr. Simpson had a problem that often kept him home. He easily caught the sniffles, and once he had them, they wouldn't go. "I'd get a cold like everyone would sometime in January or early February, only instead of being over it in two weeks, three weeks, mine would go right into pneumonia," he says.

He took medications to fight the pneumonia, but in a few months, he'd be sick again. "I'd have 102, 103 degree [38, 39 degree Celsius] fevers that would come out of nowhere," he says. "I could be doing anything and boom, the fever, the chills, the massive headaches."

According to Mr. Simpson, the problems centered in his sinuses. His medical doctor prescribed antibiotics, but they only worked for a little while. Sinus surgery didn't help. So it was back to more medications. "Amoxicillin was like aspirin to me. Erythromycin. That stuff. Maxaquin, within a month after they'd given that Maxaquin to me, the federal government had recalled it because of health problems," he says.

Meanwhile, the "bugs" in Mr. Simpson's body got better at resisting medication. When this happens, many physicians prescribe more powerful and more expensive drugs, and that's what Mr. Simpson's doctors did, until one day, one single bottle of pills cost $650. If these new pills didn't work, or his insurance refused to pay the bill, Mr. Simpson worried, then what? "I couldn't afford $1,300 or $600 for a bottle of pills. That sent me on a mission. I think the dollar sign of what I was taking," he says.

Finally, Mr. Simpson's medical doctor agreed that antibiotics had failed him. In fact, some experts blame antibiotics for many chronic illnesses.

"They contribute heavily to this epidemic of respiratory disease, not just sinusitis," says Rob Ivker, a medical doctor who is co-founder of the American Board of Holistic Medicine and the author of Sinus Survival. "When you take an antibiotic, it not only kills the bacteria that are causing the infection, you're killing the good bacteria that are filling our bowel and the mucous membranes that line the respiratory tract, the nose, the sinuses and the lungs," he says.

He says that killing good bacteria gives drug-resistant microbes room to flourish, creating a nasty cycle in which harmful bacteria, funguses and other microbes that are resistant to anti-microbials grow out of control, robbing the body of nutrients and causing disease.

Fortunately, Mike Simpson says, his doctor finally sent him to specialists who boosted his health through lifestyle changes, including a better diet. "For me, a key was cutting out a lot of the fun foods I thought were making me feel good," he says.

So, he gave up candy bars, chips, pizza, cookies, donuts. Mr. Simpson says he learned that just as fertilizers can make a patch of weeds grow faster, once anti-microbials have killed off the "good bugs," the "bad bugs" in our bodies flourish when they feed on junk food and sweets. He switched from coffee and sodas to water. On weekends, he cooked loads of healthy food, so he could pack lunches of grilled chicken with vegetables and rice.

"It's not easy to pay attention to foods. We don't want to do those things. But Mike is a special person because he had the power and the willingness to pay attention to the diet," says nutrition expert Wolf Becker, who counseled Mr. Simpson to eliminate junk foods, along with common allergens that can clog the sinuses, such as milk and cheese. "Dairy would be number one. Sugar. You cannot go on drinking cokes and even fruit sugars are not the greatest in that area. Alcohol would not be a good idea," he says.

Both Mr. Becker and Dr. Ivker say that a healthier diet and fewer antibiotics could help millions of sinus sufferers, as well as people with other respiratory conditions. As a long-time sinus sufferer, Mr. Simpson agrees. He says when he starts wishing for candy bars, he recalls how sick he used to be and compares it with how he feels today. "You don't have any problem eliminating your headaches, the fevers that come out of nowhere. Your mood swings are up and down. The sun's much brighter today. I'd wake up in the middle of the night, after I'd been on this for maybe a year, and it was like oceans of blue air were coming in my head when I wake up," he says.

Mr. Simpson says that it's been three years since he needed antibiotics. Thanks to his improved health, he says he's still teaching jazz and blowing his horn.