More and more Americans are shunning medicine to deal with nasal congestion. Instead, they’re addressing the problem at the source. After all, if the problem is in your nose, it seems inefficient to fight it with something you put in your mouth. A popular alternative is to irrigate the nasal passages with saline. This procedure literally washes out the nose, clearing out the congestion and allowing the person doing it to breathe free again.
Nasal irrigation with a neti pot—from the Sanskrit word meaning “cleaning the nose”—has a long history in Ayurvedic yoga practice in India. It was initially done with handmade clay pots; today, most are metal, ceramic, glass or plastic, which are more sanitary and less cumbersome to use. The lamp-like shape, however, is almost unchanged over the centuries.
The practice began to take root in Western medicine in the 19th century. Scientific studies have shown that nasal irrigation using a neti pot, or with a pump or squeeze bottle, is an effective way of cleaning the nostrils, though some of the grander claims made for long-term or whole-body health effects are unsupported by the evidence.
Neti pots can be safely used with children as young as six, as well as adults. It’s considered a good treatment for allergies that cause congestion, for the common cold, for mild sinus infects, and for postnasal drip. Doctors warn, however, that people with acute sinus infections risk washing bacteria further into the body.
Nasal irrigation offers some advantages over medication. Medicines that treat the underlying illness often do little about the symptoms, particularly symptoms such as mucous build-up, in the nose and elsewhere, that are actually artifacts of the body’s efforts to fight infection. Medicines that are intended for decongestion can be difficult to obtain, and may have undesirable side effects such as drowsiness.
There are some safety concerns with irrigation as well, however. Mostly they revolve around an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, which is found in untreated tap water and can, if it gets to the brain, cause the rare but fatal condition primary amoebic meningoencephalitis. However, most treated tap water is safe. If you want to try nasal irrigation at home but are unsure if your tap water has N. fowleri, boil the water before adding the salt. Just be sure to let it cool to below 80 degrees Fahrenheit before putting it in your nose.