If you cope with a persistent stuffy nose due to allergies or other causes, then the chances are good that somebody has recommended a neti pot to you. This tiny teapot-shaped device has been used to rinse the nose and relieve congestion for decades, if not centuries. The journal American Family Physician notes that a neti pot and other methods of saline nasal irrigation were described in The Lancet as early as 1902.
Recently, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have both noted that the seemingly harmless neti pot can actually increase your risk for infection if used improperly. This has caused many people to ask: Are neti pots safe? Do they really help nasal congestion? And how exactly do you use a neti pot?
What is a neti pot?
As far as medical instruments go, the neti pot is definitely one of the simpler ones. It looks similar to a teapot, with a small spout on one end. Before you use it, you fill it with a fluid, which is typically a saltwater, or saline, solution, American Family Physician says. Many people swear by neti pots as their go-to method for quickly relieving sinus congestion due to allergies and other causes. They’re readily available to purchase in most pharmacies and online. In addition, pressurized canisters, squeeze bottles and other devices are also available that work similarly to the neti pot.
How to use a neti pot
Once you fill your neti pot with the appropriate saline solution, irrigating your sinuses with the device is fairly simple. According to the Mayo Clinic, you position yourself over a sink as you insert the spout of the neti pot into your nostril. While breathing through your mouth, slowly pour the solution into your nostril. It should drain out through the other nostril or your mouth. Then you repeat the process with the other nostril.
How does a neti pot work?
It sounds simple, right? And for many people, this easy, decades-old trick is the one they turn to when they need immediate relief from their troublesome nasal congestion. However, the reason that neti pots are so effective is not completely clear, according to American Family Physician. They theorize that it might simply be due to the fact that using a neti pot directly and immediately removes any inflammatory allergy triggers through irrigation. This, in turn, seems to improve the function of the nasal mucosa, which lines the nasal cavity.
Are neti pots safe?
For years, people have been clearing their sinuses in this way without giving it much thought. It wasn’t until recently that the FDA sounded the alarm by pointing out that there are risks of infection related to using neti pots.
The problem, it seems, is related to the very low levels of organisms such as bacteria and protozoa that are sometimes found in tap water. When you drink tap water, these organisms die off fairly quickly once they’re exposed to the acids in your stomach and digestive tract. This is not the case in the nose, however. Here, these organisms can survive and even thrive, leading to serious infections.
Using a neti pot safely
Despite these health concerns related to neti pots, the FDA, CDC, Mayo Clinic and other health organizations note that they are still safe to use, as long as they are used properly. To ensure that your neti pot will help with nasal congestion relief and not lead to infection, try the following strategies:
- Use the right water. Tap water is not recommended for use in a neti pot due to the potential health risks that it poses, as described above. However, the Mayo Clinic notes that you can still use tap water as long as you make it safe for your neti pot first. There are a couple of ways to do this. Your first option is to filter the water using a filter with a pore size of 1 micron or smaller. Your second option is to boil the water for several minutes and then let it cool before using it in the neti pot to irrigate your sinuses. Bottled water that has been distilled or sterilized is also a safe option for use in your neti pot.
- Clean it correctly. Just as tap water is not a safe choice for irrigating your sinuses with your neti pot, it’s also not the best option for cleaning your neti pot. The same water options mentioned above should be used to clean the pot, except the water should be hot and you should add a bit of antibacterial soap. Then, once it’s clean, leave it open and allow it to air-dry completely before using it again, the Cleveland Clinic suggests.
- Replace it frequently. Even with proper care and cleaning, your best bet for promoting safety and avoiding infection when using a neti pot is to replace it every few months or so with a new one, the Cleveland Clinic says. This is an especially good idea if you use your neti pot frequently.
- Use the right solution. Saline nose drops are typically available to purchase at a pharmacy or online, but you can also make your own neti pot solution, according to Healthwise. Here’s how to make a neti pot solution that is safe and will help relieve congestion: Add 1 cup of clean water to a clean container. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the water. Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to the mixture. You can store this homemade neti pot solution for up to three days at room temperature. The Mayo Clinic says it’s OK to prepare your own neti pot solution as long as you use the correct ingredients.
- Don’t put cold solution in your neti pot. The solution that you put in your neti pot should always be at room temperature, and never cold, the Cleveland Clinic notes. This is true of the standard saltwater mixture, but it’s particularly true if you happen to be prescribed a solution for use in a neti pot after sinus surgery. Many of these medications need to be refrigerated, but they should be warmed to room temperature before use in the neti pot. People who use cold solution in their neti pots after sinus surgery run the risk of developing bony growths in the nose known as paranasal sinus exostoses (PSE).
How often should you use a neti pot?
As long as you are maintaining a proper use and cleaning regimen for your neti pot, there’s really no limit to how often you can use it. Most people find relief from using it once a day, but more is OK. In fact, some people have been known to use a neti pot up to three or four times a day if they are experiencing more severe symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The key to gaining sinus relief from a neti pot is to make sure that you are using the right water, the right solution and the proper steps to clean it afterward. As long as you can check off these boxes, then it is a safe and effective method for relieving aggravating nasal congestion.
- Safe Neti Pot Use: 3 Tips, Cleveland Clinic, 2014, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/safe-neti-pot-use-3-tips/
- Saline Nasal Irrigation for Upper Respiratory Conditions, American Family Physician, 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2778074/
- Is Rinsing Your Sinuses with Neti Pots Safe?, FDA, 2017, https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/rinsing-your-sinuses-neti-pots-safe
- What is a neti pot? And why would you use one?, Mayo Clinic, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/expert-answers/neti-pot/faq-20058305
- Saltwater Washes, Healthwise, https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hw67090
- Is it OK to make my own neti pot solution?, Mayo Clinic, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/expert-answers/neti-pot-solution/faq-20058402
- 5 Best Options for Sinus Infection Treatment, Unity Point Health, 2019, https://www.unitypoint.org/livewell/article.aspx?id=671755c2-beb3-45d0-8f2c-5d539a3b2182
- CDC: Sinus Rinsing for Health or Religious Practice, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria/sinus-rinsing.html