How to Use a Neti Pot Safely to Treat Congestion

Experts explain why the teapot-shaped device is a simple solution to a stuffy nose — and break down exactly how to use one.

woman using neti pot
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When you're plagued with a super-snotty cold or seasonal allergies that bring on a seriously stuffy nose, your go-to course of action to clear out all that mucus might be to take a decongestant medication and hope for the best.

While that strategy could provide some relief, you might want to consider incorporating a neti pot into your sinus-soothing toolkit, too. In fact, "a lot of people feel that a neti pot does a more effective job at treating their nasal congestion compared to over-the-counter medications," says Melissa Ann Pynnonen, M.D., an otolaryngologist (aka an ear, nose, and throat doctor) at the University of Michigan Health.

But what is a neti pot, exactly, and how do you use one safely? Here, medical experts answer all your burning questions about neti pots and break down just how beneficial these tools can be for your nose.

What Is a Neti Pot?

Simply put, a neti pot is a teapot-shaped device used to flush out your nasal passages, typically with a saline solution, says Dr. Pynnonen. "The idea is you just tip the 'spout' of the 'tea kettle' into your nose, and the solution flows into your nose in what we would consider a low-pressure scenario, meaning you're not squeezing anything into there," adds Raj Sindwani, M.D., an otolaryngologist at the Cleveland Clinic. "It's just flowing out at a slow pace."

Rinsing the nose with salt water, whether it's via a neti pot or another type of nasal irrigation device (think: bulb syringes, squeeze bottles), can do your sniffer some good. For one, nasal rinses help moisten the nose, says Dr. Sindwani, which can help reduce mucus and phlegm production, according to the National Institutes of Health. Plus, "the flow of the water across the surface of the lining of the nose is thought to capture bacteria, pollen, dust — whatever else you might be inhaling — and literally clean or debride the nasal cavities of that stuff," he explains.

If you're allergic to grass pollen, for example, rinsing with a neti pot after mowing the lawn can help wash out any allergens lingering in your nose and relieve allergy symptoms, says Dr. Pynnonen. Using a neti pot or other nasal irrigation device is also beneficial when you're suffering from a nasty viral or bacterial infection, as it can temporarily flush out the mucus in your nasal passage and help you breathe better, she adds.

Aside from those everyday uses, nasal rinses are commonly recommended for people recovering from sinus or nose surgery, as it helps clear out any blood, mucus, and crusting, says Dr. Pynnonen. In these cases, though, Dr. Sindwani typically advises patients to use a squeeze bottle, in which you tip your head down, place the nozzle in your nose, and squirt the saline solution up your nasal cavity, instead of a neti pot. "Rather than the water just gently pouring into your nose, you'll squeeze the bottle and flush it with a little bit more pressure to move mucus, move crusting, clots, whatever is in your nose to get a more thorough cleaning," he explains. "That higher pressure we think is better because [it] might move the mucus a little more effectively."

How Often Can You Use a Neti Pot?

Thankfully for the folks dealing with a stubborn cold or pesky seasonal allergies, neti pots are generally safe to use, says Dr. Pynnonen. "This is something that anybody can do — and you don't even need your doctor's permission to do it," she says.

That said, folks with congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, or other heart conditions may want to consult their doctor before doing a nasal rinse with a saline solution, says Dr. Sindwani. High sodium consumption can increase blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although you're not straight-up drinking the saline solution when using a neti pot, you will inevitably swallow some of the water, and there's concern it could impact these folks' bodily salt balance, he explains. Still, "the actual technique of flushing is safe pretty much for anyone," he adds.

So, how often can you use a neti pot? If you don't have any heart concerns or your doctor has given you the all-clear, it's typically safe to give yourself a nasal rinse once or twice a day, even if you're not sick, experiencing allergies, or recovering from surgery, says Dr. Sindwani. "Even holistically, just keeping your nose clean [can be] like brushing your teeth — some people like the idea of cleaning things out with a saline flush once or twice a day," he adds. Give yourself a nasal rinse too frequently, and you may run the risk of irritating your nasal passage, according to the Cleveland Clinic, so try to limit your neti pot use to twice a day.

How to Use a Neti Pot Safely

Given the device's simplistic design, using a neti pot seems like a no-brainer. But there are a few key tips to keep in mind when giving yourself a nasal rinse. When making your saline solution,use only distilled, bottled, or tap water that has been boiled for three to five minutes and brought back down to room temperature, says Dr. Sindwani. The reason: Unboiled tap water contains low levels of organisms (think: bacteria, amoebas) that can survive in the nasal passages and potentially cause severe, and in some cases, fatal, infections, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Your water's temperature also matters. Regardless of the type of H2O used, it should be room temperature, says Dr. Sindwani. Not only does this make the rinse more comfortable, but for the folks who are recovering from sinus surgery, it can also reduce the odds of developing paranasal sinus exostoses — bony growths that can form in the sinuses themselves when cold water is used for nasal rinses, he explains. "The lining of the sinus normally is protected, but when you do surgery, you kind of open all that up and expose it," says Dr. Sindwani. "And routine hitting of that cold irrigation actually causes the lining of the bone, called the periosteum, to form bony bumps."

To turn your plain water into a saline solution, you can stir 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda into 8 ounces of water or buy pre-mixed packets of those ingredients if you're not in the mood to DIY, says Dr. Sindwani. "The idea of adding a little bit of salt and a little bit of baking soda is that that solution then better resembles the body's innate solutions and hopefully will be less disruptive to the saltwater balance of our bodies," he explains. Plus, a saline rinse is less likely to cause irritation of the nasal passage than regular water, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

When you're ready to flush out your nostrils, lean over a sink and tilt your head sideways until your forehead and chin are roughly parallel, according to the FDA. While breathing through your mouth, insert the spout of the neti pot into one nostril, tilt your head slightly forward, look down, and lift the neti pot at an angle so the solution flows through your nasal passage, per the Cleveland Clinic. As you gently pour about half the solution (4 ounces) into your nostril, the saltwater will rush out your other nostril. Once you're finished, let the solution and any mucus drip out, then blow your nose to clear the nasal passage, and repeat on the opposite side, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Since the spout of the neti pot can rub against the front of your nasal septum (the cartilage and bone that separates the nasal cavity into a right and left side and is rich with blood vessels), some users develop nose bleeds after use, says Dr. Sindwani. To reduce your odds of causing trama, avoid pushing your neti pot (or any nasal irrigation device) too far into the nasal cavity and think about pointing the spout toward your ears, he suggests.

How to Clean a Neti Pot

To keep your neti pot free of potentially harmful bacteria, avoid sharing your device with others and wash it with warm water and soap after every one or two uses, suggests Dr. Sindwani. After every cleanse, allow your neti pot to air dry, adds Dr. Pynnonen.

It's also important to replace your neti pot or other nasal irrigation devices every three months or so, just like your toothbrush, she explains. "That's because, just like the bristles of your toothbrush, a neti pot can accumulate bacteria called biofilms, and once it has biofilm growing on it, it's impossible to remove it," says Dr. Pynnonen. (ICYDK, a biofilm is a complex structure of bacteria that adheres to a surface, and biofilms that contain pathogenic bacteria can cause chronic infections, according to an article published by Frontiers.)

The Takeaway On Neti Pots

TL;DR: Neti pots are generally a safe, effective, and budget-friendly way to alleviate stuffy noses and allergy symptoms, as well as aid in the healing process post-sinus surgery, says Dr. Sindwani. And though you typically don't need your doctor's blessing to practice nasal rinsing, don't forget to use common sense if you're flushing for illness relief, he says.

"If you're really sick, things aren't getting better, or you have some ominous symptoms like bleeding or pain, that's not a routine type of problem," he adds. "Make sure you don't self-medicate and go see a doctor."

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