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Neti pots: potentially dangerous?

A woman using a neti pot, a small teapot-like device, to pour water in one nostril and out the other.

Does this look at all comfortable or useful to you? Seriously?

Sorta kinda maybe. Depends on what kind of water you’re using. Turns out the popular but placebo home remedy for sinus issues might be a vector for catching slight cases of brain-munching amoeba infestation. But Louisiana’s taking no chances, after two people contracted primary amoebic meningoencephalitis after using a neti pot filled with tap water and died.

Jonathan Yoder, an epidemiologist with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the Louisiana cases are still being investigated to ascertain that the deaths did indeed result from exposure to treated tap water in neti pots, rather than exposure to untreated water in a pond or lake. If so, they are the first known incidences of the disease in the U.S. resulting from N. fowleri organisms surviving the water treatment process.

“Nearly all the cases have resulted from exposure to warm recreational water, such as ponds, rivers and lakes, and the kind of exposure where the water would be forced up the nose — for example, diving and water sports,” Yoder told Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. The amoeba thrives in natural waterholes, especially those in the South, and several Americans die every year from swimming in these waterholes, or using untreated water from them. However, “in the last 15 years, I’m not aware of other cases [in the U.S.] associated with treated drinking water,” he said.

This would be terribly novel if it’s true. And for me, slightly fear-inducing, though I might just be easy to panic. Considering I’ve learned that wearing contact lenses as I do occasionally, and having your eyes come into contact with amoeba-infected water can lead to blindness within a day of exposure, I’d like to think my aversion is justified to a certain extent. The verity of this claim would also be a quite devastating piece of evidence against Louisiana’s water treatment processes — and anyone else’s whose water treatment processes match.

All of this aside, nasal lavage seems to me to be a placebo remedy at best, pseudoscience at worst. It has all the same utility as blowing your nose, only it’s a lot less convenient and a lot more uncomfortable.

Comments

  1. cullen says

    Slightly scary re: the amoeba bit, but I use a Neti pot sometimes when I’m really blocked up. I don’t like how over-the-counter meds dry my nose out and make me sleepy.

    As for the real efficacy of the treatment or any risks long-term I don’t know, but I had a sinus infection last year, and as well as antibiotics I used a neti pot once or twice a day. It worked wonders, although it made me say both ‘wow, how did *THAT* fit up there?!?’ and ‘ewwwww!!!’ in equal measures from the size and quantity of discharge. I didn’t achieve anything like the quantity in removal of mucous with blowing alone.

  2. Ms. Crazy Pants says

    Besides, it sounds like the water itself was dangerous, not the neti pot. I will be more cautious about water when down south now that I’ve heard about the water treatment.

  3. Irreverend Bastard says

    It has all the same utility as blowing your nose, only it’s a lot less convenient and a lot more uncomfortable.

    There are times where no amount of nose blowing helps, but a neti pot manages to clear the blockage.

  4. Tiktaalik says

    I use a squirt bottle (NeilMed) rather than a Neti pot, and I have to say, when I’m really blocked up, it works. It’s not uncomfortable in the least; if you use the right temperature water and the buffered salt solution, it feels like nothing. I also haven’t gotten a sinus infection in the 7 1/2 years since I started using it, whereas previously I got one twice a year, requiring anti-biotics. However, I’m going to spend more time sanitizing the bottle & boiling the water from now on!

  5. says

    I really liked the analysis from the link at 6. For frequent sinus infection sufferers, it’s a good possible alternative, if you accept the risk that you might wreck the mucus lining of your nose over time. It might help mitigate symptoms for cold sufferers, but I wouldn’t use it unless a doctor recommends, and even then, sparingly and with as sanitized water as I can manage.

    Ms Crazy Pants @5: as Ibis points out, the amoeba may be evolving to survive water treatment processes. Or, it could just be that the process of shooting it up your nose is enough to get what little amoeba survive normally within striking distance of your brain. I would be very careful to use only boiled or otherwise sterile water since the problem is less the amoeba than the delivery mechanism of shooting water up into your sinus cavities.

    I might try this process for science at some time in the future, but I reserve my skepticism. Even where I recognize that it might flush the crud from my sinuses, I don’t expect this is going to provide prophylactic or curative effects with regard to my relatively frequent sinus problems.

  6. kaleberg says

    My doctor suggested a nasal douche since I often have dry and whiffly nasal passages. He says that nasal irrigation once or twice a day would help me and that I would notice an effect after a few days. He recommended just snorting the water from a bowl or buying a nasal douche, basically a glass or plastic version of the Neti pot that doesn’t looks more science-y than teapot-y. Apparently, there is medical literature on this. My doctor says that there is some medical literature on this, but I didn’t press him for citations. In general, he’s pretty good, and he’s walked me through Bayesian statistics, explained the various types of blood sugar tests (integrating versus present), and was skeptical of that prostate taste that is now considered close to worthless well before most doctors had decided to punt it. So, I imagine that regular nasal irrigation would help my sinuses, but I hate the feel of water up my nose, so I’m going to stick with saline spray and conventional nose sprays.

    Obviously, if I were to irrigate I’d use tap water which comes from a deep well and is heavily chlorinated around here figuring that it would likely be amoeba free.

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