One less-clogged schnoz coming up.

By SJ McShane
February 03, 2021
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If you're reading this article, chances are you want your nose back. After trying just about every pill, natural remedy, and device in the hopes of clearing those congested nasal passages, you may have stumbled across a teapot-like implement that literally forces you to squirt water up your nose. Nasal irrigation sounds more like a torture practice than an allergy alleviation method, but we totally understand your curiosity, particularly in the winter/spring season when you'll try literally anything to unstuff a plugged canal.

The neti pot (also known as a nasal saline irrigation system) is a decongestant technique that dates back centuries, with roots in Ayurvedic medicine. And while it's become a pretty popular method in recent years thanks to its drug-free nature, sticking a spout inside your nostril can sound...unpleasant.

If you can get past the strange sensation of water going up your nose, allergists say it can be a helpful adjunct to medication—both over-the-counter and prescription—to fight seasonal allergy symptoms. "Some of my rhinitis and sinusitis patients (non-allergic and allergic both) have genuinely benefited from nasal irrigation used in conjunction with other therapies when allergies, colds, or sinus conditions are present," says Clifford Bassett, MD, a board-certified allergist and author of The New Allergy Solution. This recommendation aligns with a 2002 University of Wisconsin study that found nasal irrigation significantly improved sinus-related quality of life and decreased symptoms in people with frequent sinusitis.

Intrigued? Here's what you need to know about using a neti pot safely—whether it's during allergy season, cold week, or year-round.

What is a neti pot?

"This home-based treatment is usually made of plastic or ceramic material, and used to rinse the nasal passages by putting water into one nostril and draining it out the other," says Dr. Bassett. A classic neti pot ($10; amazon.com) is just one of the ways you can perform nasal saline irrigation. There's also a bulb syringe or bottle method ($13; amazon.com). Because the squeeze bottle provides more force and is easier to handle than a classic neti pot, Dr. Bassett says it can be a better option for neti newbies. 

Here's how it works: When pollen is ingested, it sits on the inner lining of the nose. It's later broken down and comes into contact with the "mast cells" of the body (a part of the immune system). This contact causes the body to release histamine, which results in allergy-like symptoms, such as a stuffy, runny nose. Nasal irrigation allows water to flow into one nostril, through the nasal cavity, and out the other nostril, flushing out the incriminating pollen in the process—something people can't do just by forcefully exhaling.

Credit: Getty Images

How do you use a neti pot?

The picture on the instruction packet may look scary, but rest assured it's easier (and less painful) than it looks. According to Dr. Bassett, the first—and most important thing—is making sure you are using the safest water solution inside the neti pot. "If you don't have premixed saline rinse preparation ($13; amazon.com), you should create a proper solution using distilled, sterilized, or previously boiled water."

Once you have water that's safe to use, Dr. Basset says to angle your head slightly over the sink and gently introduce the device into the nostril." Breathing through your open mouth (not your nose!), gently pour the saltwater solution into your upper nostril so that the liquid drains through the lower nostril. Repeat on the other side, switching the tilt of your head so the water drains the right way. "Some prefer to do this in the shower," says Bassett, noting that it makes for a cleaner experience and the added steam can help loosen up sinus congestion.

Are there any risks?

Neti pots aren't dangerous, but using them incorrectly can be. 

"First and foremost, all water going into your nose should be distilled, sterile, or boiled tap water that has been cooled. You can also use water filtered with filters labeled "NSF 53," "NSF 58," or "absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller," says Dr. Bassett. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, using tap water that is not filtered, treated, or processed in specific ways can increase a person's risk for infection. In one recent case, a woman even died after using water that hadn't been properly treated and ended up containing infectious amoebas. 

Since the device is cleaning your nose, remember to take the time to clean the device. You should be washing your neti pot thoroughly with soap and water after each use, letting it dry completely before using again. Otherwise, it's the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive and multiply.

And don't overdo it! According to Dr. Bassett, you should use a neti pot no more than once a day. "Excessive irrigation can leave salt remains in the nose, causing nasal dryness, and in some cases, rhinosinusitis (an infection in the lining of the sinuses) and nosebleeds," says Dr. Bassett. "If you're unsure, consult with your health provider or specialist about when to do nasal irrigation, for how long, and the preferred device. Some solutions can be regular salt water, while others should be 'hypertonic' for greater effectiveness—specifically, for when you have an infection during a cold and need maximum mucus-eliminating power."

Bottom line: Flush if you must—but do so safely.