A woman who died from a brain-eating amoeba after using a neti pot to clear out her sinus infection is serving as an important reminder to only use sterile water with the device.
The 69-year-old woman had an ongoing sinus infection, which led her doctors to suggest the neti pot — a teapot-shaped device used by tilting the head to the side and pouring either sterile water or a saline solution into the upper nostril so the mucus drains out the lower one. You then repeat the process on the other side.
For a month, the woman used the neti pot, but with water filtered from a Brita water purifier, according to a case report published in September’s International Journal of Infectious Diseases. She developed a rash on the bridge of her nose and raw skin near her nostrils, which she thought was rosacea. But doctors also could not determine the cause of the irritation until she had a seizure, and a subsequent CT scan revealed a 1.5-centimeter lesion on her brain, caused by an amoeba called B. mandrillaris. She went to a coma soon after, and was taken off life support.
This woman’s case highlights that, “in short, it has to be sterile water,” Dr. Travis Stork, an ER physician, host of The Doctors and a member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, says of the water for a neti pot.
“These amoeba infections are rare but not unheard of, which is why the water must be sterile,” Stork explains. “Always follow directions!”
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Using water that has gone through a Brita water ilter is not sufficient — it’s still tap water, and is not sterile. Instead, use pre-packaged, certified sterile water found at a local pharmacy or drug store. Stork also emphasizes that the neti pot needs to be regularly cleaned as well to ensure that it’s fully safe.
If using a neti pot feels too risky, there are similar products you can buy that make the process easier.
“Another option for nasal irrigation is to use over-the-counter nasal saline rinses like Simply Saline nasal mists,” Stork says.
Though he, personally, is a fan of neti pots (used correctly, of course): “I like to use a neti pot particularly when I have a cold to moisten and rinse my nasal passages and help clear out sinus congestion,” Stork says.
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