How Not to Get a Brain-Eating Infection from Your Neti Pot this Winter

Neti Pot Belatina
Neti Pot and Sinus Rinse

Cold and flu season is upon us, and with temperatures fluctuating, several months of winter weather ahead of us and germs spreading rapidly, it’s just a matter of time before you fall victim to those dreaded cold symptoms. Many people, from doctors to your overbearing mother to your yoga instructor, will swear by their neti pot as a must-try tool to help alleviate congestion and treat everything from allergies to the common cold.

But ironically, that very tool you use to soothe your cold and flu symptoms may also be the source of another more deadly health risk. If you are a neti pot user, or if you’re considering trying this contraption as a way to combat the sniffles or treat a sinus infection then you need to listen up: that neti pot could literally kill you.

According to a report by NBC News, a Seattle woman recently died from a very rare brain-eating amoebic infection called Balamuthia mandrillaris. And all signs are pointing to her neti pot as the cause of that exceedingly rare deadly infection. If you just shuddered at the thought of anything eating your brain, same. But it happened, and it could happen to you if you don’t know the rules and recommendations for neti pot use.  

What’s a Neti Pot?

For many, a neti pot sounds is a genius invention to help with pesky cold symptoms. And for all intents and purposes, it is a tried and true natural solution to congested sinuses. For those who aren’t familiar, a neti pot looks like a small teapot with a main vessel and a spout, and it is used to flush out your nasal cavity, acting as an irrigation system, and also to moisten your nasal passage to prevent dryness and irritation. Ask anyone who uses this tool regularly and they’ll tell you, it really helps.

But in light of this recent diagnosis and report, the FDA is warning neti pot users to pay close attention to proper usage guidelines, and to be aware that improper use could pose serious risks of dangerous and even deadly infections.

balamuthia net pot Belatina
Photo Credit CDC.gov – Balamuthia mandrillaris is a free-living ameba (a single-celled living organism) naturally found in the environment. Balamuthia can cause a rare* and serious infection of the brain and spinal cord called Granulomatous Amebic Encephalitis (GAE).

The report, published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, presented the case of a 69-year-old woman with a chronic sinus infection, who used a neti pot for one month before displaying strange symptoms. First she presented a nasal skin rash, then she began suffering seizures and ultimately she became comatose despite aggressive anti-amoebic therapy. It was later discovered that the patient died as a result of a Balamuthia mandrillaris brain infection, which had been eating her brain for almost a year.

After careful examination of the patient, it was determined that the cause of the infection and ultimate necrosis was her neti pot, which she used with filtered tap water from her Brita Water Purifier. This rare but deadly amoeba, which is often found in soil and freshwater, enters the body through an open wound or cut, and then spreads to other parts of the body where it causes lesions and fatal damage. Because these types of infections are almost always diagnosed right before or after death, experts know very little about how people contract the infection and how to treat these amoebic infections.

The good news is that these infections are extremely rare. The CDC reports that there have only been about 200 cases of human infection recorded worldwide, and at least 70 in the USA.

NAEGLERIA FOWLER Neti Pot BeLatina
Photo Credit CDC.gov Naegleria fowleri infection of brain

Another similar amoeba called Naegleria fowleri has been the culprit in several other high-profile cases of infection from neti pots. Back in 2011 two patients in Louisiana died after being exposed to Naegleria fowleri while flushing their nasal passages with non-sterilized tap water in neti pots. The New York Times reported that the FDA issued warnings to consumers about proper neti pot usage using only distilled or boiled filtered water.  

Should You Kick Your Neti Pot to the Curb as this Cold Season?

Not quite yet. Doctors and the FDA still support that when used correctly and cleaned properly, neti pots are usually safe and effective at treating congested sinuses. Properly being the key word here.

It seems that these rare incidences of death are an exception, not the rule. That said, we’re talking about a very rare, brain-eating infection, so even if it only happened once or twice, it’s not a risk that should be taken lightly.

Experts recommend that you only use sterile water, which is free of bacteria and viruses, when using neti pots. You can only use tap or filtered water if you boil that water for at least three to five minutes, and then let that boiled water (now free from germs and bacteria) cool to lukewarm or room temperature. Even most bottled spring waters are not sterile, so that water should also be boiled first.

And in case you were wondering, the reason that it is safe to drink tap water is that your stomach has acid that can kill the amoeba before it reaches other organs. Your nasal cavity is more vulnerable to infection, which is why these bacteria can survive in your nasal cavity and travel to your brain.

Bottom line: neti pots are safe if you use them right. Only use sterilized water and be sure to clean and dry pots thoroughly after every use.