Death by Neti Pot: The Lesson in One Woman's Tragic Experience

CC BY-NC 3.0. Wikimedia Commons

Neti pots are useful for flushing out clogged sinuses, but it's important to do it the right way.

Neti pots are popular for their ability to flush out clogged nasal passages. The pot looks a bit like a small tea pot, and it works by pouring warm saltwater into one nostril, where it softens and rinses out mucus buildup. The first time I used a neti pot, at my father's urging, it was indeed a revelation. I felt a glorious sense of relief at being able to breathe again after suffering from a stuffed-up nose for days.

These pots should not be treated lightly, however. A disturbing news story out of Seattle reveals that a 69-year-old woman died earlier this year after contracting brain-eating amoeba from using a neti pot. Her doctor had advised nasal irrigation as a way to clear an ongoing sinus problem, but she filled it with tap water, filtered using a Brita Water Purifier, rather than the sterile or saline solution that one is supposed to use in a neti pot.

It took a while to figure out what was wrong. The woman developed a large sore on her nose that doctors thought was rosacea, but was admitted to hospital following a seizure. A CT scan revealed something that looked like a tumor, but turned out to be far worse. Dr. Charles Cobbs, neurosurgeon at Swedish Medical Center, told the Seattle Times,

"When I operated on this lady, a section of her brain about the size of a golf ball was bloody mush. 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."

The woman died a month later, despite the surgeons' efforts to save her and the use of a novel drug for amoebic infection, delivered to the hospital by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This tragic story has been the focal point of a study, published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. You can read the open-access study here. This is something we should all be aware of because doctors think we'll be seeing more amoebic infections due to climate change. As soil and water warm, these amoeba will be able to move from South and Central America and survive in the northern hemisphere.

The story may sound alarmist, but it has a valuable takeaway message: Don't risk using tap water when it comes to neti pots. By all means, keep flushing out those nasal passages this winter, but always do it with sterile or saline solution.