Salt therapy for respiratory problems

If you have asthma you get used to feeling a bit inadequate. Blotchy-faced and itchy-eyed, I'm often on the verge of an inappropriate sneeze. At school I was last in cross-country running, wheezing my way over the finishing line. And in adulthood, my breath whistles and my sinuses throb. Which is why I'm not remotely bothered by having to wear a hairnet and sit in a room full of salt. I would do anything to rid myself of this respiratory flaw. My condition is mild and I have luckily never had an attack, but I have to use an inhaler twice a day, with another on hand for emergencies. How I would love to bin them for good and breathe free and easy.

I have high hopes for the Salt Cave in south-west London. It is the first clinic of its kind in the UK, offering "drug-free relief for respiratory illnesses", such as hayfever, bronchitis and sinusitis, plus allergies, eczema and psoriasis.

The "cave" is a bit like a salty igloo. There are salt drifts everywhere, underfoot and lining the walls. The hairnet and the shoe covers are to keep the room free of dirt, while the sound of waves and seagulls played inside enhances the weird, seaside effect. But the two tonnes of salt are purely decorative. The supposed medical benefit comes from breathing in sodium chloride aerosol, which is piped into the "cave" by a microclimate generator. This mixes milled salt with a current of air. The theory is that by breathing this in, mucus in the respiratory tract is loosened and coughed up.

Salt inhalation has been around since the Greeks, when Hippocrates recommended it for respiratory problems. The only recent evidence, however, comes from the former Soviet Union; a 1999 Lithuanian study of 250 children and 500 adults found that salt therapy for an hour a day for two weeks improved respiratory results in nine out of 10 cases. Yet many western doctors are sceptical.

This is a complementary therapy: helping control conditions rather than cure. Asthma UK says: "There is evidence that it can have a benefit but we don't know enough about it." Yet since opening in January [2009], the salt cave has picked up a host of regulars. Its director Sofia Benke advises patients to sign up for five to 10 one-hour visits (£35 an hour or £260 for 10). You should see an improvement in your condition after four or five sessions, she says.

Tish Webster, 28, a yoga teacher from Earlsfield who has hay fever, spent 10 hours in the cave over the summer. "It wasn't until three or four sessions that it started to improve. I get congestion all the time and wake up with my eyes watering and sneezing. I used to take [anti-allergy tablets] every morning and I was able to stop altogether. I found it very impressive." She has even started teaching yoga in the cave: "Your breathing is much more effective."

Hannah Cannock, 37, from Wandsworth, is mother to Toby, aged five. Her son has had asthma since the age of two and uses inhalers daily. She enrolled him for 20 one-hour sessions and after 15 or 16, noticed she was no longer "running into his room at 11pm to give him his inhaler in his sleep. He wasn't wheezy when running around either." Toby has also, for the first time in his life, had six months without needing antibiotics for a chest infection. Could the improvement be coincidence? "Scepticism is all very well if it's not you," Cannock says, "I will try anything for my son if it will help."

I wish I could say my own experience was as positive. The seagull noises got on my nerves and I spent most of my time in the cave fidgeting. My eyes felt dry and itchy and my sinuses were twitching and streaming after five minutes. An hour later I could breathe more clearly than ever before, but I paid the price that night, as my sinuses rebelled. I was gasping for breath, needed my inhalers more than ever and had a stuffy nose for a week.

I steeled myself for another visit, but the effect was the same. My breathing was initially clear, then came the sniffing and snorting. I really could not face another visit. let alone completing the course. There's nothing harmful about the "cave", and for people with a high tolerance for seagull music, it might even be pleasant. But the assault on my sinuses was too much to bear.

There was, however, one unexpected benefit. I've fallen deeply in love with my inhalers. Ventolin, I'll never take you for granted again.

For more information about the Salt Cave, visit or call 0208 870 6006

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