To Rinse or Not to Rinse: Is It Safe to Use Neti Pots to Rinse Your Sinuses?

The teapot-shaped devices have become a fixture in many homes

To Rinse or Not to Rinse: Is It Safe to Use Neti Pots to Rinse Your Sinuses?
Image: Pixabay
January 25, 2017

Among the many nasal irrigation systems available to consumers trying to un-clog their nasal passages so they can breathe easier, the neti pot has become particularly popular. But how safe is it to use?

The device—which can include bulb syringes, squeeze bottles, and pulsed water devices operated by a battery—has several uses. It can treat congested sinuses, colds, and allergies with a saline (saltwater) solution, and they can also moisten nasal passages dried out by dry indoor air.

However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that using these devices improperly can increase the risk of an infection.

FDA doctor Eric A. Mann, M.D., Ph.D., says that when they are used and cleaned properly, though, they are usually safe and effective.

But what exactly does it mean to use a neti pot safely? First, use only distilled, sterile, or previously-boiled water when rinsing.

It is not safe to use tap water as a nasal rinse because it has not been adequately filtered or treated. Some tap water contains low levels of organisms like bacteria that can be safe to swallow because they are killed by stomach acid. However, these organisms can stay alive in the nasal passages and cause potentially-serious infections—infections that, in rare cases, can even be fatal.

Water Safe to Use When Rinsing

  • You can buy distilled or sterile water in stores. The label will include the word "distilled" or "sterile."
  • Tap water that has been boiled for three to five minutes, then cooled until lukewarm. If you store it in a clean, closed container, you can use previously-boiled water for up to 24 hours after boiling it.
  • Water that has been filtered for potentially-infectious organisms.

Safely Use the System

When using a neti pot or other nasal irrigation system, make sure that you follow the instructions.

"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," Mann says.

Any information that comes with the device may provide more specific instructions about using and caring for it. These kinds of devices all basically work in the same way:

  1. Lean over a sink, and tilt your head sideways. Make sure your forehead and chin are about level so that no liquid will flow into your mouth.
  2. Breathe through your mouth and put the spout of the container into your upper nostril so that the liquid will drain through the lower nostril.
  3. Clear the nostrils and repeat the above steps on the other side.

Rinsing your sinuses can get rid of dust, pollen, and other debris as well as helping to loosen up thick mucus. In addition, it can also help relieve symptoms in the nose of sinus infections, allergies, colds, and the flu. While plain water can simply irritate the nose, the saline allows water to pass through the nasal membranes with little or no burning or irritation.

If your immune system is not working properly, make sure to discuss it with your doctor before you use any kind of nasal irrigation system.

Here's how to use and care for yours:

  1. Wash and dry your hands.
  2. Make sure the device is clean and totally dry.
  3. Get the saline rinse ready, using either the prepared mixture that came with the device or one you make yourself.
  4. Follow the manufacturer's directions to use the device.
  5. Wash the device and dry it inside, either by air drying or with a paper towel.

If the instructions are not clear, or if you have any question, talk with a healthcare provider or pharmacist.

Nasal Rinsing Devices and Children

Make sure the device fits the age of the user. Some kids get diagnosed with nasal allergies at as young an age as two, and these children could use these devices at that time if recommended by a pediatrician. However, very young children might not tolerate the process.

Regardless of age, the user should talk to a healthcare provider to make sure that nasal rinsing will be safe and effective for them. If symptoms do not get better or actually get worse after using the device, go back to your healthcare provider, especially if you have a fever, nosebleeds, or headaches while using the rinse.