Washing noses with neti pots or squeeze bottles has become increasingly popular as a home remedy for colds, allergies and sinus trouble. But it's not such a great remedy if it kills you.
Now that two people have died from infection with brain-eating amoebas after using neti pots, doctors are warning: do not put tap water up your nose.
"Drinking water is good to drink, very safe to drink, but not to push up your nose," says Raoult Ratard, state epidemiologist for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Two residents of his state have died after using neti pots this year, the first known deaths associated with neti pots. "The first one could have been a fluke," Ratard told Shots. But now that we have a second one, the only explanation is the use of the neti pot."
The first death came in June, when a 20-year-old man died of encephalitis caused by infection with Naegleria fowleri. That amoeba is common in rivers and lakes, but only very rarely causes brain infections. Back in August, we reported on several deaths in children who had been jumping or diving in fresh water. But since adults are less likely to be doing cannonballs, they're also less likely to be infected.
Then in October, a 51-year-old Louisiana woman died of encephalitis. The doctor thought to ask if she used a neti pot. Both her brain tissue and her home's tap water tested positive for the microbe. Ratard says: "They found the amoeba, the lady was using a neti pot, and had no contact whatsoever with surface water."
Thus the new warning from Louisiana: If using a neti pot or other nasal irrigation device, use distilled or filtered water. Keeping the device clean is crucial, too, Ratard says. A neti pot, which looks like a small genie lamp, can be safely washed in a dishwasher, but squeeze bottles and other devices need to be scrubbed. All need to dry between uses. "If you let them dry completely, the amoebas are not going to survive long," Ratard says.
A quick survey of neti pots and squeeze bottles finds that the instructions recommend using boiled, distilled or filtered water. But like so many simple hygiene instructions, it's one that's easy to let slide. The prospect of death by brain-eating amoeba, rare though it is, should provide enough motivation to follow the rules.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post included a photograph of a specific neti pot product that was not associated with the potential medical issues described in the post. The photograph has been removed.