Neti pot used to irrigate nasal passages
Neti pot used to irrigate nasal passages
US Food and Drug Administration

People who have chronic sinus infections or nasal allergies are often told by their doctors to use a neti pot to rinse their clogged nasal passages, but they also need to take a few precautions to lower their risk of getting other infections, the US Food and Drug Administration recommended in a recent guide for consumers.

Improper use of neti pots was linked to two deaths last year in Louisiana from a rare brain infection, according to the FDA, due to tap water contaminated with an amoeba organism that infected the brain.

While the FDA called neti pots “generally safe and useful,” those who use them should only pour in distilled water or tap water that’s been filtered.

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Dr. Stacey Gray, co-director of the Mass Eye and Ear sinus center, said this is smart advice, though municipal water supplies are routinely tested for bacteria and other organisms. (The amoeba linked to the Louisiana deaths isn’t a threat in Massachusetts tap water.)

“I’ve always told my patients who drink from untreated well water that they shouldn’t use it in their neti pots without boiling it first to sterilize it,” said Gray, “but now we’re recommending that advice to all our patients.”

Nasal rinsing can remove dirt, dust, pollen and other debris, as well as help to loosen thick mucus that afflicts many with chronic congestion. It’s a great way to relieve symptoms, Gray said, without side effects caused by antihistamines and decongestants.

The irrigation system using a pot or tube sold over-the-counter in most drugstores is fairly risk-free as long as the water contains no contaminants. A bigger concern than pathogens in tap water, Gray added, is mold or bacteria growing in pots or tubes that haven’t been properly cleaned. “Read the instructions on the package,” she advised, since some products need to be replaced every few months, while others can be cleaned in the dishwasher.