After woman dies from using tap water to clear sinuses with neti pot, doctors issue warning

February 20th, 2019

We’re often told that neti pots are a great way to irrigate our sinuses when allergy and cold seasons hit. And while they may take some getting used to, they really are the most gentle way to deal with congestion – that is, if they’re used correctly.

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Aikhan via Wikimedia Commons Source: Aikhan via Wikimedia Commons

While most of us want to reach for the over-the-counter nasal decongestant sprays for instant relief, we know that they can lead to a brutal rebound effect. That effect keeps us using them longer than we need to. Prescription nasal sprays with steroids are a good option if you can get to the doctor for a prescription.

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robin_24 via Wikimedia Commons Source: robin_24 via Wikimedia Commons

But if you want to deal with your cold at home you only have so many evidence-backed options. The key is to follow the instructions carefully – and one Seattle woman’s mistake is a cautionary tale for us all.

You may have seen the news that a 69-year-old woman from Seattle died from using a neti pot to clear up her sinus infection, but there’s much more to the story.

The 69-year-old woman saw her doctor for a chronic sinus infection and was instructed by her doctor to rinse her nasal passages twice daily with a neti pot. But like many of us, she likely didn’t know that the CDC recommends that neti pot users only fill their pots with distilled, sterile, or cooled-down boiled water.

The woman used tap water instead and even though it had been filtered through her Brita purifier, but it wasn’t enough.

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Ernesto via flickr Source: Ernesto via flickr

After a month, she developed a rash the size of a quarter on the right side of her nose. Not exactly what you need if you’ve already had a sinus infection that long!

Her doctors told her it was just rosacea at first, but when the ointment they prescribed didn’t work, she sought out a dermatologist. Still, there was no definitive diagnosis, even after a biopsy. That’s because her problem was something her doctors had never seen before.

We’re assuming her sinus infection cleared up in the meantime, but it wasn’t until a year later that doctors would discover the cause of the rash. But by then it was too late.

After the women had a seizure and was admitted into the hospital, her CT scan showed a lesion on her brain. Doctors tried to remove it but it was unlike anything they had ever seen.

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Haidn Foster via ResearchGate Source: Haidn Foster via ResearchGate

During surgery, the doctors realized they were removing dead brain tissue. A surgeon who examined her brain tissue told the Seattle Times:

“…a section of her brain about the size of a golf ball was bloody mush. There were these amoeba all over the place just eating brain cells.”

Days after surgery her left arm and leg became numb and she was delirious. That’s when physicians called in a neuropathologist to try to explain, who suggested that she had acquired an amoebic infection.

Despite treatment, it was simply too late. The woman had fallen into a coma and her family decided to take her off life support.

Only her autopsy would reveal the truth. The woman died after becoming infected by an amoeba called Balamuthia mandrillaris, which typically lives in soil (though scientists think it’s now likely that it can live in water as well). When it travels to the brain (as it would while one is irrigating their sinuses), it can cause a deadly infection.

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Photo via the CDC Source: Photo via the CDC

Unfortunately, this was not the first death from an amoebic infection tied to neti pot use. In 2013, a Louisiana man died after being infected with an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. Doctors tested the Seattle women for that amoeba, but they came up negative.

Doctors now think these amoebic infections might be more common than previously thought because the diagnosis is so hard to make. It’s likely that patients may have slipped through the cracks in the past.

It’s important to note that while Brita filters can filter out many water impurities, the filters do not have a pore size small enough to filter out some amoebas. However, if there are amoebas in your water supply, they must enter the brain in order to cause an infection. Simply drinking contaminated water will not lead to a brain infection. So this situation is unique to neti pot use.

Even though patients should use caution and avoid using tap water (unless it’s been boiled for 3-5 minutes and cooled down) in their neti pots, they remain safe to use as long as you follow the instructions. If you decide to use a neti pot, be sure to clean it thoroughly between each use, even if you purchase sterile or distilled water from the store for use.

And, of course, never share your neti pot with others, because that’s just gross.

If you are interested in the full scientific report on the case, you can find it here. You can also scroll down to see a video explaining the infection.

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