AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) — Before a COVID-19 vaccine was released, a team at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) set off to learn if patients could reduce the severity of their illness if they were infected. They began looking at the nose, which is one of the main areas the virus enters the body.

“For the virus to get into the system, it had to hook onto something called an ACE2 receptor,” Dr. Amy Baxter, a Clinical Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at MCG, explains. “It was taking so long, and it was clear that if you just reduced the amount of virus that was able to get on, you could decrease the severity of illness. In emergency medicine, one of the things we do is irrigate away bacteria and viruses. If you get a laceration or cut, you flush it out with normal saline. This has been done for sinus infections for years.”

MCG began a study with 75 participants, aged 55 and older. Within 24 hours of being diagnosed with COVID-19, each participant began using pressurized nasal irrigation to clean their sinuses. Researchers hypothesized that by cleaning sinuses twice a day, the virus would have less of a chance to infect the body as it would be washed out.

“We figured if you flush the virus out of the nose before it has the chance to invade, then it would also decrease the amount of viral load, and make you more likely to have a mild case or no disease at all.”

Participants used either a pressurized spray bottle or navage to clean their sinuses. Out of the 79 participants, only one was hospitalized.

“People were eight times less likely to be hospitalized if they started using nasal irrigation immediately after testing positive.”

Dr. Amy Baxter notes that as people age, their sinuses get larger. She says this may be one indicator explaining why older individuals are more likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19.

“If you look at an adult’s sinuses, which is where the irrigation is, they’re huge. But, children don’t even have fully developed sinuses yet.  We hypothesized that one of the reasons that older people are more impacted by COVID was because there is simply more area in the sinuses for the virus to land on and then infiltrate.”

The study was conducted between September and December 2020 — a time when the original strain of the virus (B.1.1.7) was dominant. Baxter says the original strain did not attach well to ACE2 receptors, allowing it to be flushed out during this study. However, the Delta variant, which had not arisen at the time of the study, is much stronger.

“It is very likely this [nasal irrigation] is still going to be helpful but less helpful for Delta than it was for the B.1.1.7.”

However, Baxter still suggests people irrigate their nasal passageways if they become infected.

“The impact of keeping the defenses in the nose hydrated makes absolute sense.”

Read the full study here.