I have been scuba diving for a little while now. So far I’ve noticed that I tend to emerge with a runny nose. This has never been a problem; apparently increased mucus output is a common and natural response to breathing compressed air.
However, I recently had to cut a dive short when my nose clogged completely and I was hit with a bit of painful compression “squeeze” in my sinus passages. I was not diving unusually deep, nor differently from previous dives, but the water was a lot colder than I have previously dived in (though not uncomfortably so).
I do seem to have a general tendency to increased mucus production in cold climates; for example, when sleeping with an open window, I tend to wake up with a clogged nose. My sinus passages also do not love strenuous physical exercise, for some reason.
I’m wondering about the physiology behind mucous secretion, especially in the context of diving or other sports. Personal experiences and suggestions are welcome.
I have been told that phenylpropanolamine (brand name Rinexin and others), which reduces mucus production, is popular among divers, but wouldn’t want to depend on anything that increases the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Are there any natural drugs that have similar benefits?
Your experience is quite common for coldwater divers. I’ve done more than 50 dives in Monterey Bay (average water temp: 55) and always found that I was clogged up with mucus afterwards. Our bodies produce or don’t produce mucus depending on a variety of situations. Interestingly, mucus production is related to emotional state and levels of adrenaline.
One thing is certain: your body needs to warm and moisturize air before it enters your lungs. Mucus is the way it does it. I’ve found that I also produce more mucus when I’m skiing or otherwise out in cold weather. The air in your tank loses heat as it expands through the stages, and of course it’s extremely dry. Your body produces extra mucus to compensate. At only 33 feet you’re breathing air at 2x surface pressure, which has a tendency to shove the mucus up into your head and down into your eustachian tubes that connect your inner ear to your throat.
Coming back up, the reverse happens. I’ve often surfaced with a mask full of slightly bloody snot (I have chronic dry sinuses, which become irritated and bleed when exposed to tank air).
I thought I had heard of phenylpropanolamine before, and indeed it’s now known to be dangerous. But in the USA, at least, it’s also not used anymore. I use Sudafed as a nasal decongestant: it doesn’t have phenylpropanolamine.
The best idea is not to medicate yourself, but if you can go to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist who can diagnose problems you may be having and suggest a remedy. Ask your dive buddies; I’m sure one of them knows an ENT, and probably even one that knows something about scuba.
From ScubaDan ~
I have a somewhat similar issue. I do a lot of cold water diving in Monterey. I find that I have a constant post nasal drip causing me to have to cough up a lot of phlegm while under water. It tends to get better as I am heading back towards shore, which would make sense, as I am getting into more shallow waters. It is painfully annoying. I was thinking it was caused by the cold water, and was suggested to me this weekend that it was the dry air. I am beginning to see that it is a combination of the two.
I will be seeing a doctor about this in the near future, and will post his thoughts.
I’m a Monterey Bay diver, too, and I always get a runny nose after diving. Never much of a problem during the dive, but always a little annoying afterwards. There’s usually some salt water up there, too, that has to be ejected.