Patient Query - Catarrh
I have been suffering from very unpleasant catarrh since last October. I am 70 years of age. What is causing this and what can be done to treat it?
The respiratory tract is a single continuous unit, but it is useful to separate in into upper and lower levels. Coughs, colds, catarrh and influenza are usually confined to the upper portion of the tract. Most are caused by viruses but, even with extensive tests, a cause is isolated in less than 40 per cent of episodes.
Catarrh is defined as a build-up of mucus, caused by inflammation of the mucous-membrane lining of the nose and throat. Catarrhal inflammation results in excess secretion. Constant or recurrent catarrh, if not caused by a virus or bacterium, may have an allergic origin, as in the case of hay fever. Postnasal drip is an intermittent trickle of watery discharge or mucus coming from the back of the nose into the throat. The excessive secretion results from ongoing inflammation of the mucous membrane of the nose.
Acute episodes of infection usually resolve themselves within a week or 10 days. The course of the episode tends not to be influenced by any definitive treatment. Treatment is usually confined to symptomatic relief.
Steaming with hot water - and with the addition of a few drops of Olbas Oil - will help reduce inflammation and swelling of the mucous membrane of the upper respiratory tract and relieve a blocked nose. Decongestants will also help.
Antihistamines may have a role to play if there is an allergic component to the condition, but talk to your doctor before taking these, as many have sedative properties or may interact with other medication you are taking.
Although troublesome and irritating, catarrh on its own is not usually a symptom of anything more sinister. If you have any other symptoms, you should arrange to see your GP, who may refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist for an opinion.
Dr Muiris Houston
From the viewpoint of traditional Chinese medicine, this excessive catarrh is being produced by your digestion.
As we get older our digestion weakens, and what we once may have eaten with impunity, we no longer can.
Chinese herbal medicine states that certain foods produce catarrh, or phlegm. Saturated fats, especially pork, sugars, sweets, cakes, cheese, peanuts and beer all have a tendency to do this, so you should try to reduce your consumption of them.
The same principle is true for internal phlegm (cholesterol), which can cause obstruction and blockage.
Some of the herbs used in Chinese medicine are everyday foods, so knowing a little about the action of foods can help people balance their health using ingredients from their own kitchens.
In this case, you should eat more herbs and vegetables that help to cut through phlegm. These include garlic, onions, scallions, chives, horseradish, ginger, turnip, fennel and cardamon.
The digestion is said to transform food and fluids. If it is weak, however, the process is incomplete, and catarrh or phlegm is produced.
To improve the digestion and to avoid overworking the stomach, it is best to eat small meals and avoid eating after 7pm.
Also, it is helpful to eat fresh food and not to eat too many processed or reheated meals.
A Chinese herbalist would make an individual prescription for you, using a combination of 10 herbs to clear the phlegm and strengthen the digestion.
The herbs would include aged orange peel, mint, ginger, liquorice, bamboo grass, cinnamon and cloves.
Josephine Lynch, practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine
You can contact the Irish Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine on 01-8533043