For about six weeks, Richard Preen has drawn some inspiration from Australian surfers in a daily ritual designed to help ease his cystic fibrosis. The 27-year-old inhales salt water and says the unusual practice is already starting to make a difference. He says the mucus which clogs his lungs is becoming easier to cough up. The treatment developed by scientists in the US and Australia advocates inhaling a salt water aerosol solution almost twice as salty as the Atlantic Ocean. Trials have already shown good results and experts say the treatment is thousands of pounds cheaper per patient than its chemical alternative.
Richard, from Cheltenham, is just one of a few people using the treatment in the UK. He heard about the therapy from a friend with cystic fibrosis (CF), who is using it in Australia.
I have noticed that I am bringing up more mucus which is a good thing
"She told me that the Australians had discovered that people with CF who were surfers, and in the water all the time, found they had less lung infections. "So scientists decided to see whether inhaling a salt solution could help and this seemed to work pretty well. "Obviously I have had CF from birth, but I just needed the basic treatments and then when I was 15 my condition started getting gradually worse and I had to have medication intravenously and oral antibiotics." But despite the various treatment and regular physiotherapy sessions, his condition became more acute and he had to give up full-time work and go part-time.
Since taking the saltwater solution, however, he is noticing promising results. "It is too early to say how effective it will be, but I have noticed that I am bringing up more mucus which is a good thing. It really is just a case of seeing how it goes. "I am now on a course of intravenous (IV) antibiotics so I will be very interested to see how the salt solution works after the IV's when my chest should be at its clearest. "Hopefully the salt therapy should slow the return of the thick mucus that usually builds up." The solution comes in a bottle and is about 7% hypertonic (stronger than the contents of the cells of the body).
"It is a really strong dose," said Richard. "I just draw it up in a syringe and put it into my nebulizer for about five to ten minutes and it irritates the lungs and makes you cough." CF is a genetic condition which causes chronic lung damage due to the build up of excessive amounts of sticky mucus. In healthy people, the water lining the airways helps to clear away excess amounts of mucus by pushing it up into the mouth where it can be swallowed. But people with CF are missing this layer of water and are unable to prevent the mucus from clogging up their lungs - ultimately this can lead to respiratory failure. The salt water therapy uses salt to suck water from the lung tissues out onto their surface.
Dr Jim Littlewood, chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, said inquiries he had made showed few people in the UK were on the treatment, despite it being so cheap to try. "It is quite harmless and it is hard to believe that it could have any toxic affects, but it does irritate some people. "It has the wonderful advantage that it is extremely cheap. "And current studies show it is just as effective as the alternatives." He said the current drug used for the same purpose, used once a day, costs about 7,500 per patient a year. He said the therapy was not new, but the fact that it had recently had US and Australian trials and been published in the New England Journal of Medicine validated it.