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Is it safe to rinse your sinuses with a neti pot?

As cold and flu season continues, Americans turn to all sorts of remedies to stifle their symptoms. Among them is the neti pot – a small teapot-like vessel with a long spout used to flush out clogged nasal passages.

Neti pots and other nasal irrigation systems are used with sterile water or saline solution to treat congested sinuses, colds and allergies. They can also help moisten nasal passages dried out by indoor air.

But the FDA is warning that improper use of neti pots can be dangerous and lead to infections, including the deadly Naegleria fowleri – better known as the “brain-eating” amoeba.

In a statement, the FDA said that when used and cleaned properly, neti pots are usually safe and effective. The first rule of safety is to only rinse with distilled, sterile or previously boiled water.

Tap water isn’t safe to use as a nasal rinse because it’s not adequately filtered or treated and may contain low levels of organisms, such as bacteria and amoebas. These organisms may be harmless to swallow because stomach acid kills them, but they can stay alive in nasal passages and cause potentially serious infections. In rare cases, these infections can be fatal.

If you use boiled and cooled tap water, make sure it is boiled for three to five minutes then cooled until it is lukewarm. Previously boiled water can be stored in a clean, closed container for use within 24 hours, the FDA says.

It’s also extremely important that you follow the instructions that come with the neti pot or nasal irrigation system.

“There are various ways to deliver saline to the nose. Nasal spray bottles deliver a fine mist and might be useful for moisturizing dry nasal passages. But irrigation devices are better at flushing the nose and clearing out mucus, allergens and bacteria,” Eric A. Mann, MD, PhD, a doctor at the FDA, said in a statement.

Though each product will come with its own set of information on proper use and care, the FDA provides the following general guidelines for neti pots:

  • Leaning over a sink, tilt your head sideways with your forehead and chin roughly level to avoid liquid flowing into your mouth.
  • Breathing through your open mouth, insert the spout of the saline-filled container into your upper nostril so that the liquid drains through the lower nostril.
  • Clear your nostrils. Then repeat the procedure, tilting your head sideways, on the other side.

When done this way, sinus rinsing can remove dust, pollen and other debris, as well as help to loosen thick mucus. It can also help relieve nasal symptoms of sinus infections, allergies, colds and flu.

To use and care for your device, the FDA recommends:

  • Wash and dry your hands.
  • Check that the device is clean and completely dry.
  • Prepare the saline rinse, either with the prepared mixture supplied with the device, or one you make yourself.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s directions for use.
  • Wash the device, and dry the inside with a paper towel or let it air dry between uses.

Talk with your doctor or pharmacist if the instructions that accompany your device do not clearly state how to use it or if you have any questions. Also consult your health care provider before using any nasal irrigation systems if your immune system is weakened for any reason.

Finally, some children diagnosed with nasal allergies as early as the age of 2 may benefit from nasal rinses. However, parents should consult with their pediatrician before use.

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