John C. Wolf, D.O.Associate Professor of Family Medicine Ohio University College
of Osteopathic Medicine
USING PETROLEUM JELLY FOR NASAL DRYNESS
CAN RESULT IN PNEUMONIA
For several years, I've been putting a small amount of Vaseline in my nose each
night to keep my nostrils from getting too dry. Before I did this, I'd have trouble
getting to sleep because my nose felt so dry, and I would wake up each morning
with dried blood in my nose. Now, I have neither of these problems, but I've begun
to worry if this a good practice.
A dry and irritated nose certainly is uncomfortable. This is commonly a nighttime
problem, just as you describe, because the normal nasal secretions drain differently
when we lie down. Also, during the night we don't swallow and drink liquids --
actions that help keep the nasal tissues moist.
The petroleum jelly you have been using coats the delicate nose tissues and helps
moisturize them in two related ways. It forms a barrier that keeps the air from
getting to the nose tissues, so it can't dry them out. And, it also retains the
normal moisture produced by them.
In general terms, petroleum jelly is safe to use. However, there is a potential
problem from prolonged use as you describe. This problem arises because the petroleum
jelly doesnt just stay in the nose but rather migrates to other parts of
Petroleum jelly usually drains out of the back of the nose with the normal nasal
secretions and is then swallowed. While this is probably not a problem for you
because of the small amount involved, petroleum jelly in the digestive system
can reduce the number of vitamins that your body absorbs. However, for those that
use mineral oil -- a similar type of petroleum -- as a laxative on a frequent
basis, the risk is much greater.
The greatest risk from use of petroleum jelly in the nose comes from inhaling
the material. This commonly occurs when asleep, so the person is unaware of it.
The lungs can't easily eliminate this foreign substance as the digestive tract
does. Instead, the lungs react to it, causing scarring and pneumonia- like fluid
This lung damage usually begins so gradually that the individual doesn't relate
the symptoms to the use of petroleum jelly in the nose (or, in other cases, the
chronic use of mineral oil for constipation or the frequent exposure to the spray
lubricants used on machinery). Eventually, when chronic shortness of breath develops
along with a cough, a chest X-ray will be done. While the lung images may look
abnormal, it is usually necessary to obtain a sample of lung tissue to identify
the specific type of lung disease. If the cause is petroleum jelly, the diagnosis
will be lipoid pneumonia, because lipoid is a doctor word meaning
an oil-based substance like petroleum jelly.
So, to answer your question, it is dangerous for you to be using petroleum jelly
in your nose every night.
Have you had patients with this "dry nose" problem before? What do you
recommend for this problem?
The symptoms of "dry nose" are typically due to one of two common
conditions. Very dry air causes the nose to dry out at night. This is often
a problem in the winter. The best treatment for it is the use of a vaporizer
or humidifier in the bedroom to bring the moisture of the air up to a more comfortable
and healthful level. Use of a non-prescription saline nose spray also provides
safe although temporary relief from the annoying dryness.
A second common cause is allergies. Since you have been having your symptoms
year round, it is likely that this is the cause of your dry nose. Most individuals
who have this condition are allergic to house dust, animal dander or feathers
that may be in your pillow. Sometimes it is possible to get satisfactory relief
by keeping pets out of the bedroom, keeping the bedroom meticulously clean (even
under the bed) and using synthetic pillows instead of feather or down ones.
For others, specific treatment for allergies is needed to gain relief.
Medicine" is a weekly column.
submit questions, write to: John C. Wolf, D.O., Ohio University College of Osteopathic
Medicine, Grosvenor Hall, Athens, Ohio 45701.
columns are available online at http://www.FamilyMedicineNews.org.