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Why Sterile Water Is Best to Flush Sinuses

You can use a saline solution made with salt and sterile water to wash out your nasal passages and clear your sinuses during allergy season.

Have you ever heard of a neti pot? This tool from the Ayurvedic medical tradition looks a lot like Aladdin’s lamp. But you don’t rub it to make a genie appear. Instead, you fill it with tepid saline solution and use it to pour water in one nostril. (Bend over a washbowl or basin, as it will come out the other nostril.) This helps to clear dust, pollen and other gunk from the nasal passages and can be a powerful aid against allergy symptoms. Do you need to use sterile water to make the saline solution? Our reader is not the only one to insist that this is important.

Use Sterile Water in Your Neti Pot:

Q. Please warn people who use a neti pot or other method to flush their sinuses that they should make the saline solution only with sterile water, never tap water. There have been a couple of documented deaths from primary amoebic encephalitis in the past decade from people using a municipal water supply for neti flushes. The problem was an unknown contamination of the water supply.

A. A renowned allergist, Dr. David Peden, agrees that tap water is inappropriate for home-made saline to flush the sinuses. He prefers sterile water or, even better, a commercially prepared saline solution. You could rinse your nasal passages and sinuses once or twice a day during allergy season to ease congestion, but using the neti pot more often isn’t helpful.

The neti pot is not the only technology that can be use to wash away nasal congestion. We’ve heard from several readers who prefer NeilMed or a similar method to flush the sinuses. One person sent this story.

Spritzing Saline to Save the Sinuses:

Q. You recently had a letter from someone with frequent sinus infections. For many years, I too struggled with sinus infections every few months. I’d feel bad and usually have bad breath.

To deal with them, I went to a doctor who would prescribe antibiotics and strong decongestants. Then four years ago, I read in the Mayo Clinic newsletter about using saline solution for clearing out mucus. So every morning after my shower and every evening before bed, I tilt my head back and squirt saline solution in each nostril and “snort” it up into my sinuses. I then blow my nose.

Doing this twice daily prevents mucus buildup that invites bacterial growth. This solution is cheap and natural. The saline spray costs about $3 and lasts a week.

Occasionally during allergy season I still have to take an OTC decongestant, but I have not been to the doctor for this problem in 4 years. This has made life so much better.

Saline Nasal Spray or Neti Pot?

A. Using saline nasal spray as you do is a variant of the ancient Indian practice of using a neti pot with saline solution to rinse the nasal passages and sinuses. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) have found that many patients with chronic sinus problems report dramatic improvement when they start using saline solution regularly (Annals of Family Medicine, Jul-Aug. 2006). 

With a range of devices available, patients have significant choice about how to wash out their nasal passages. Gradually, doctors who treat allergies and sinus problems are coming to the conclusion that this practice can be helpful (International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, Mar-Dec. 2018). Irrigation devices can easily become contaminated (American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy, May-June 2012). As a result, you should wash your neti pot or other device after use and be sure to use sterile water when you make the saline solution.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Rabago D et al, "Qualitative aspects of nasal irrigation use by patients with chronic sinus disease in a multimethod study." Annals of Family Medicine, Jul-Aug. 2006. DOI: 10.1370/afm.552
  • Casale M et al, "Saline nasal irrigations for chronic rhinosinusitis: From everyday practice to evidence-based medicine. An update." International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, Mar-Dec. 2018. DOI: 10.1177/2058738418802676
  • Psaltis AJ et al, "Contamination of sinus irrigation devices: a review of the evidence and clinical relevance." American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy, May-June 2012. DOI: 10.2500/ajra.2012.26.3747
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