Does the sea air have healing powers?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, ocean air was considered a cure-all for nearly any illness, from depression to tuberculosis. But is there real science to the supposed healing powers of a visit to the sea?

One expert, Thomas W. Ferkol, the president of the American Thoracic Society and a pediatric pulmonologist at Washington University in St. Louis, dives in—and explains why some patients might want to take up surfing.

Breath of Fresh Air

Doctors 200 years ago had few therapeutic options for patients with respiratory diseases other than a visit to a seaside resort, Dr. Ferkol says. There is very little sound clinical evidence from those bygone times to suggest that breathing in sea air had any true health benefits. Still, the anecdotal evidence, even today, is substantial, particularly among children with cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung disease. "We've had more than a few families come back from the Gulf Coast and ask if they should move because they feel so much better," says Dr. Ferkol. "I'm not sure how much of the improvement is spiritual, metaphysical or physiological, but I suspect it's all."

Surfers to the Rescue

Some data does exist to conclude that inhaling salty air can clear the lungs. Patients in Australia with cystic fibrosis had long reported to their doctors that they could breathe more easily after surfing, Dr. Ferkol says. So researchers began experiments about a decade ago in which they administered inhaled hypertonic saline to cystic fibrosis patients for 48 weeks.

"The idea was that the salt would draw more water into the surface of the airways, opening them up," says Dr. Ferkol, whose work focuses on cystic fibrosis and other genetic lung diseases.

The results of the experiments were published in 2006: Patients had fewer pulmonary flare-ups and required fewer antibiotics. Now it is standard practice for doctors to prescribe a 7 percent sodium chloride inhalation solution to cystic-fibrosis patients, he says.

Other research has tried to determine whether inhaling salt water can help with conditions such as bronchiolitis, a common respiratory illness caused by an infection, but with mixed results. "There are studies that show there can be some benefit, but there is no clear understanding of why inhaling salt water would be advantageous to a patient with any disease other than CF," Dr. Ferkol says.

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