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Effectiveness of steam inhalation and nasal irrigation for chronic or recurrent sinus symptoms in primary care: a pragmatic randomized controlled trial [Research]

Background:

Systematic reviews support nasal saline irrigation for chronic or recurrent sinus symptoms, but trials have been small and few in primary care settings. Steam inhalation has also been proposed, but supporting evidence is lacking. We investigated whether brief pragmatic interventions to encourage use of nasal irrigation or steam inhalation would be effective in relieving sinus symptoms.

Methods:

We conducted a pragmatic randomized controlled trial involving adults (age 18–65 yr) from 72 primary care practices in the United Kingdom who had a history of chronic or recurrent sinusitis and reported a “moderate to severe” impact of sinus symptoms on their quality of life. Participants were recruited between Feb. 11, 2009, and June 30, 2014, and randomly assigned to 1 of 4 advice strategies: usual care, daily nasal saline irrigation supported by a demonstration video, daily steam inhalation, or combined treatment with both interventions. The primary outcome measure was the Rhinosinusitis Disability Index (RSDI). Patients were followed up at 3 and 6 months. We imputed missing data using multiple imputation methods.

Results:

Of the 961 patients who consented, 871 returned baseline questionnaires (210 usual care, 219 nasal irrigation, 232 steam inhalation and 210 combined treatment). A total of 671 (77.0%) of the 871 participants reported RSDI scores at 3 months. Patients’ RSDI scores improved more with nasal irrigation than without nasal irrigation by 3 months (crude change –7.42 v. –5.23; estimated adjusted mean difference between groups –2.51, 95% confidence interval –4.65 to –0.37). By 6 months, significantly more patients maintained a 10-point clinically important improvement in the RSDI score with nasal irrigation (44.1% v. 36.6%); fewer used over-the-counter medications (59.4% v. 68.0%) or intended to consult a doctor in future episodes. Steam inhalation reduced headache but had no significant effect on other outcomes. The proportion of participants who had adverse effects was the same in both intervention groups.

Interpretation:

Advice to use steam inhalation for chronic or recurrent sinus symptoms in primary care was not effective. A similar strategy to use nasal irrigation was less effective than prior evidence suggested, but it provided some symptomatic benefit. Trial registration: ISRCTN, no. 88204146.

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