Around this time of year, I resign myself to becoming a mouth-breather. My nose is perpetually, debilitatingly stuffy, thanks to everything from high indoor heat to the fact that I’ve developed an allergy to my own damn dog. Because I constantly complain about this, people constantly recommend that I try a neti pot. To this I say: absolutely not, are you insane?
Neti pots are a traditional Ayurvedic tool that have grown in popularity with the wellness and homeopathy set in recent years. Nasal irrigation flushes out your sinuses and thins out the mucus within, clearing out any irritants and easing congestion. In theory, this sounds great — I don’t love the idea of taking allergy medicine every single day of my life. I also completely understand why people think I’m the target audience for them: I’m a crunchy vegan who loves wearing Tevas and can’t stop talking about my homemade fire cider. However, I’m also the target audience for not contracting a brain-eating amoeba.
This is, unfortunately, my number one association with the evil tiny nose watering cans. My fear started back in 2012, when two people died from amoebic infections after using their neti pots. I’ve heard numerous stories since, from high-profile cases that have made the news to personal anecdotes from friends whose family members have landed in the hospital after using their neti pots. The most recent one to strike terror into my heart came via a Seattle Times article with the headline: “Rare brain-eating amoebas killed Seattle woman who rinsed her sinuses with tap water. Doctor warns this could happen again.”
Per the article, a 69-year-old woman suffered a seizure and was admitted to the Swedish Medical Center for brain surgery. Here’s what doctors found:
“When I operated on this lady, a section of her brain about the size of a golf ball was bloody mush,” Dr. Charles Cobbs, neurosurgeon at Swedish, said in a phone interview. “There were these amoeba all over the place just eating brain cells. We didn’t have any clue what was going on, but when we got the actual tissue we could see it was the amoeba.”
Yes, I agree: ahhhhhHHHH!
Doctors eventually theorized that the amoeba was contracted when the patient used tap water in her neti pot. Even more frightening, they also believe that this condition could become a more frequent problem due to climate change, since amoebas thrive in warmer temperatures. “I think we are going to see a lot more infections that we see south (move) north, as we have a warming of our environment,” Dr. Cynthia Maree, who co-authored the study about this case in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, told the Seattle Times.
How much neti pot fear is actually justified, though? I spoke to Dr. Seema Yasmin, a public health doctor, for her take. She emphasized that this sort of amoebic infection is highly rare, though very deadly if contracted, with a case fatality rate of 99 percent. “People have been using [neti pots] for a long time and the vast majority of people use them safely,” she told me. “The problem is that oftentimes, we don’t like reading instructions, so we don’t look for the language that says ‘don’t use tap water.’” The risk can be eliminated by boiling water to sterilize it and then letting it cool.
Dr. Gabriel Rebick, an infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone, also suggests purchasing distilled water. “Bottled water is not sterile,” he emphasized. “The only product you can trust to be sterile is sterile water or sterile saline that you can purchase at the pharmacy.” (Rebick also said that the infection the Seattle patient came down with “was a different kind of brain amoeba that had been known to be associated with the neti pot,” and believes that researchers did not definitively conclude that the woman’s neti pot usage was what caused this particular infection.) Beyond simply sterilizing the water, the Cleveland Clinic recommends fully sanitizing your pot after each use and replacing it every few months.
So yes, you can use a neti pot safely. But knowing that one small mistake stands between me and an amoeba eating my brain? I’ll stick to using one thousand tissues and feeling terrible all the time, thank-you.