Nasal sprays are a common method by which various types of medications are delivered into the body. Nasal sprays are powered by either a gas-pressurized device (often carbon dioxide), or by a pump mechanism. The contents of the nasal spray are delivered into each nostril by the insertion of the spray nozzle and the compression of the spray device.
Nasal sprays are most often employed to counteract breathing-related ailments, including allergies, the effects of air pollution, and infections of the upper respiratory tract such as sinusitis, an inflammation of the tissues in the sinus passages.
Allergies are caused when the body detects the presence of an antigen, a foreign substance that the body determines to be harmful when it makes contact with the body's immune system. In the case of airborne antigens, the response by the body includes the production of histamine, a chemical that creates the watery eyes and excess mucous production that is typically associated with an allergic reaction. Many persons find breathing difficult in these circumstances; athletes are generally not able to function at a peak level if their body produces histamine at its natural response rate.
Nasal sprays containing an antihistamine compound are often effective in reducing the level of histamine produced by the body. As a result, the nasal passages remain clearer. The sprays, depending on their formulation, are fast-acting; cromolyn sodium is a well-regarded allergy nasal spray for this purpose. Antihistamine sprays are available both as a prescription medication and as an over-the-counter (OTC) product. Nasal sprays are also used to deliver allergy medications that are designed to address allergic reactions that occur in other parts of the body, as the blood vessel structure of the nasal passages is an effective entry point into the cardiovascular system for the ultimate transport of the medication to the targeted cells.
Corticosteroids are also delivered into the body by way of nasal sprays. These substances are synthetic derivatives of the body's naturally produced anti-inflammatory hormone, cortisone. Corticosteroids are particularly effective in countering the swelling and inflammation of sinusitis. In severe cases of this infection, an athlete will experience sinus pain through the heavy breathing of vigorous exercise as air rushes in and out of the upper respiratory system, as well as any sudden changes in the position of the head that result in variations of pressure in the sinus.
Commercially available decongestants often include ephedrine or similar stimulants in the composition. Ephedrine acts to stimulate the dilation of the blood vessels in the nasal passages. There are risks associated with long-term use of these types of nasal sprays because the user may feel dependent on the spray, promoting an unnatural dilation of the vessels.
A simple saline solution is sometimes employed by athletes as an aid to washing out the nasal passage, clearing excess mucus and permitting easier breathing. The saline aids in simply cleaning the passage in a sanitary fashion. Athletes who are performing in dry, less humid conditions often employ these sprays; the body's ability to process the air inhaled is most effective in slightly humid conditions, which the nasal passage can replicate if a saline spray is administered from time to time.
see also Bronchospasm, exercise-induced; Cardiorespiratory function; Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); Prescription medications and athletic performance.