Q. I read in your newspaper column about a person who developed a lung problem after putting petroleum jelly in his nose for a long time. I have been putting Vaseline in my nose every day for years to prevent nosebleeds.
A. long time ago I had to go to doctors regularly because of nosebleeds that I could not stop. They would cauterize the blood vessel and I would be good for awhile until it happened again. Back I would go for another zap to cauterize another spot.
Finally a different doctor said my blood vessels are very close to the surface in my nose and I needed something to keep my nasal tissues moist. He told me to put Neosporin or Vaseline in my nose every time it became dry which happens frequently during the day and night.
That was over 30 years ago and I have only had 5 or 6 nosebleeds since. Now I am worried, though. I do have a chronic cough that I always attributed to allergies. What else can I use to keep my nose moist? I do not want a chronic lung problem or have my nosebleeds come back.
A. Some ear, nose and throat specialists recommend petroleum jelly (petrolatum) to moisten the nasal passages but lung experts have told us to warn against this practice. They worry that this greasy petroleum product could migrate from the nose to the lungs and lead to an inflammatory condition called lipoid pneumonia. Repeated inhalation of fatty substances like petroleum jelly are not good for lung tissue and could set up a chronic cough as a symptom of trouble ahead.
If you read the label on a jar of Vicks VapoRub (which contains petrolatum) you will discover the warning: “Do not use in nostrils.”
We received this message from Dave:
“I went to the hospital for something unrelated and as result of an -X-ray and CT scan they found 5 nodules in my lungs. I met with a pulmonologist on Friday. After I mentioned that I put Vicks in my nostrils every night (and have for about 10 years), he diagnosed me with Lipoid Pneumonia. I should mention I am 41 and in very good health. This was quite a surprise.”
H.L. Added this:
“I’ve been using petroleum jelly in my nose during the day and also just before bed for the past couple of years. About 4-6 months ago I started to develop a really persistent non-productive cough. Had read about the petroleum jelly causing pneumonia, but didn’t think that it would happen to me. Well there you go… Probably time to stop.”
We would encourage you to start thinking of a salt water solution to moisten your dry nose. The official name is “normal saline” or isotonic saline which is 0.90% sodium chloride.
Getting the right concentration of salt to water can sometimes be tricky if you try to make saline in your kitchen. We also worry that tap water may not always be sterile, especially if you are using well water that has not been treated with chlorine in a municipal water supply. Even treated water can become contaminated with fungi in home plumbing.
A safer bet would be saline purchased in a pharmacy. There are saline nasal sprays available that can deliver a fine mist to dry tissues. They can relieve a dry nose or ease symptoms of allergies, a cold or the flu. Unlike vasoconstrictors found in nasal decongestants, saline nasal sprays are not addicting.
Bottom line: please stop using petroleum jelly in your nose and switch to saline spray.