Stuffy nose? Why pop a pill when streaming water through your nose is much more fun?! Luckily, there’s a special tool for this — the neti pot. A neti pot looks like a mini teapot and is used to stream water from one nostril into the other to clean out the nasal passages. When properly used, neti pots can clear the sinuses and nasal passages by flushing out the gunk that causes congestion, sinus pressure, and allergies. But take note: using them improperly CAN cause some dangerous side effects like irritation, a higher incidence of sinus problems, or bacterial infections, though those occurrences are pretty rare. Keep reading to get all the pros and cons on this alternative (and sometimes controversial!) therapy technique. The Lowdown

Neti pots clear out a stuffy situation in two different ways. First, bathing the nasal passages in saline solution thins mucus, which often builds up in the nose when the body is fighting off sickness. Second, a nice rinse can clear out gunk like dust, pollen, allergens, and yep, excess mucus that gets stuck on the small hairs (aka cilia) that line the nasal passagesSaline nasal irrigation: its role as an adjunct treatment. Papsin B, McTavish A. Department of Otolaryngology, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ont. Canadian Family Physician. 2003 February; 49:168-73..

Cleaning out the nose with streams of salt water is a traditional practice in Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Indian healing system. According to the Ayurvedic tradition, flushing the nasal passages helps restore and maintain balance among the various energy patterns (or doshas) that affect the body throughout the day. It’s important to note that Ayurveda is mainly a spiritual and alternative therapy, and the treatments are not necessarily backed up by scientific research. Although neti pots have been around for a while (as in, several thousand years), the magic lamp-shaped nasal irrigation devices have become more popular as alternative therapies receive more media coverage.

These days, most neti-phytes fill the mini teapots with a dry saline solution mixed with sterile water to rinse out the schnozSaline nasal irrigation for upper respiratory conditions. Rabago D, Zgierska A. Department of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Madison, WI, USA. American Family Physician. 2009 November 15; 80 (10):1117-9.. But how exactly does it work? After mixing up the saline solution, users tip the head to one side (over a basin or sink, unless you’d like a snot-shag carpet) and gently pour from the neti pot’s spout into one nostril. The liquid should then stream out the other side. Repeat on the second side for a squeaky-clean nose and sinuses. Gently blow the nose afterwards to get rid of excess water. If done correctly, this process should be pain-free and perfectly comfortable (though, let’s face it, kind of gross). If you don’t follow instructions, though, neti-ing can be a little painful (like getting water up your nose when swimming) so take some time to learn the proper technique.

Using a neti pot can clean out areas that are hard reach by simply blowing the nose. Plus, they actually flush out all the gunk, residue, and mucus in the nose, which tissues definitely can’t do. Neti pots and saline solution mix are available over the counter at nearly all drug stores. People with compromised immune systems or chronic sinus problems should talk to a doctor before using a neti pot or other form of nasal irrigation. Also, anyone with questions about the treatment in general should call an MD to get more personalized advice on neti pot usage. Some studies have indicated that frequent nasal irrigation can actually increase the risk of getting a sinus infection.

The Buzz — Why Do People Care Now?

Maintaining good hygiene is essential when using a neti pot — being lax about water quality or cleaning the device between uses could cause a serious infection. In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported two deaths in Louisiana caused by brain infections due to extremely rare water-borne bacteria that entered the body through use of nasal irrigation devices (fancy speak for a neti pot). The FDA strongly suggests using only sterile water or boiled (and cooled!) tap water and cleaning the neti pot thoroughly after every use. Also, as much as you may love your partner or child, don’t share netis to avoid spreading illness or bacteria. The FDA and doctors alike recommend a one-neti-per-person policy at all times.

The Verdict

So why hasn’t everyone scored some proboscis paraphernalia and started pouring? Many people shy away from neti pots because the idea of flushing water through the nose is truthfully a little scary. Frequent neti pot use can also strip away moisture from the nasal passages, leading to irritation or nosebleeds. And beware: Overusing the neti pot can actually make a sinus infection worse because it flushes out the naturally occuring bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in the nasal passages and help the immune system ward off disease.

While the neti pot isn’t a cure-all for all sinus ailments, with correct usage and hygiene, it can be a good alternative therapy to check out. As with any substance going into the body, it’s important to take the correct safety precautions when using a neti pot. Make sure to talk to a doctor if you’re unfamiliar with the procedure or have any questions.

Have you ever used a neti pot? How was your experience? Tell us about it in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.

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