ANAHEIM, California — Gargling and nasal rinsing with saltwater several times a day appeared to be associated with significantly lower COVID-19 hospitalization rates in a small, randomized, double-blind, controlled study.
“The hypothesis was that interventions that target the upper respiratory tract may reduce the frequency and duration of upper respiratory symptoms associated with COVID 19,” said Sebastian Espinoza, first author of the study; he is with Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
Adults aged 18-65 years who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing between 2020 and 2022 were randomly selected to use low- or high-dose saltwater regimens for 14 days at the Harris Health System in Houston, Texas. For patients to be included in the study, 14 days had to have elapsed since the onset of any symptoms associated with COVID.
The low dose was 2.13 grams of salt dissolved in 8 ounces of warm water, and the high dose was 6 grams. Participants gargled the saltwater and used it as a nasal rinse for 5 minutes four times a day.
Primary outcomes included frequency and duration of symptoms associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection; secondary outcomes included admission to the hospital or the intensive care unit, mechanical ventilatory support, or death.
The findings were presented in a poster at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Meeting.
Fifty-eight people were randomly assigned to either the low-saline (n = 27) or the high-saline (n = 28) group; three patients were lost to follow-up in both these groups. The reference control population consisted of 9398 people with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection. Rates of vaccination were similar for all participants.
Hospitalization rates in the low- (18.5%) and high- (21.4%) saline groups were significantly lower than in the reference control population (58.8%; P < .001). No significant differences were noted in other outcomes among these groups.
The average age of patients in the control population (n = 9398) was 45 years. The average age was similar in the low- and high-saline groups. In the low-saline group (n = 27), the average age was 39, and in the high-saline group, the average age was 41.
In all three groups, body mass index was between 29.6 and 31.7.
Exclusion criteria included chronic hypertension or participation in another interventional study.
“Low Risk, Small Potential Benefit”
Allergist Zach Rubin, MD, a spokesperson for the ACAAI, told Medscape Medical News that the findings are in line with other small studies that previously reported some benefit in using nasal saline irrigation and gargling to treat a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
“This is a type of intervention that is low risk with some small potential benefit,” he said.
The researchers did not evaluate the potential reason for the saline regimen’s association with fewer hospitalizations, but Rubin said, “It may be possible that nasal saline irrigation and gargling help improve viral clearance and reduce the risk of microaspiration into the lungs, so it may be possible that this intervention could reduce the risk of pneumonia, which is a major cause of hospitalization.”
Rubin, who is an allergist at Oak Brook Allergists in Illinois, said, “I generally recommend nasal saline irrigation to my patients for allergic rhinitis and viral upper respiratory infections already. It can help reduce symptoms such as nasal congestion, rhinorrhea, postnasal drip, and sinus pain and pressure.”
The intervention may be reasonable beyond an adult population, he said.
“This could be used for pediatric patients as well if they are developmentally ready to try this intervention,” he said.
Espinoza said further study is warranted, but he said that if confirmed in later trials, the simple intervention may be particularly helpful in low-resource settings.
Espinoza and Rubin have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune, Science News, and Nurse.com, and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on X (formerly known as Twitter) at @MLfrellick
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