Yes, Neti Pots Really Work—Here's How to Use One Safely
If you're reading this article, chances are your nose is stuffed up. After trying just about every tablet, natural remedy, and device in the hopes of clearing those congested nasal passages, you may have stumbled across a neti pot—a teapot-like implement that involves squirting water up your nose in order flush out all that gunk. Nasal irrigation admittedly sounds more like a torture practice than a decongestant or allergy relief method, but don't knock this at-home remedy just yet. When used properly and safely, it can be an effective solution to a stuffy nose.
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 might sound unpleasant. But if you can get past the (at first) strange sensation of water going up your nose, allergists say using a neti pot can be a helpful adjunct to medication—both over-the-counter and prescription—to fight seasonal allergy symptoms and drain and break up mucus in the sinuses.
"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 how to use a neti pot safely and correctly, how neti pots work, and how often to use one for maximum benefits—whether it's during allergy season, a bad cold, or year-round.
How do neti pots work?
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 from a neti pot 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 by forcefully exhaling alone. At the same time, neti pots are also typically filled with a gentle saltwater solution, which is naturally helpful in breaking up mucus and promoting healing as it rinses through the nasal cavities.
"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," Dr. Bassett says. A classic neti pot ($12; amazon.com) is just one of the ways you can perform nasal saline irrigation. There's also a bulb syringe or bottle method ($16; 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.
How to Use a Neti Pot Safely
The picture on the instruction packet of your neti pot may look intimidating, but rest assured the entire process is much easier (and less painful!) than you think. 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 ($16; 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 Dr. Bassett, noting that it makes for a cleaner experience, and the added steam can help loosen up sinus congestion at the same time.
Neti pots aren't dangerous, but using them incorrectly can be. Here are some neti pot pointers to follow every time you use one.
Use clean, sterile water.
"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.)
Clean your neti pot after each use.
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.
Only use a neti pot once per day.
How often can you use your neti pot? 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.