Beware the Improperly Used Neti Pot: Brain-Eating Amoebas Could Strike

By Veronique Greenwood | December 22, 2011 1:53 pm

A neti pot in action.

As you may have heard by now, two people in Louisiana have died from infections of brain-munching microbes after making a small, but fatal, error. While filling their neti pots, devices that send water flowing through your nasal passages to clear them out during a cold, they used tap water instead of distilled or sterilized water. Just their luck, the tap water had a few Naegleria fowleri in it, and soon, as the microbes made their way through the nasal passages to the brain, those poor folks had a lot more than a cold to worry about. The mortality rate of human Naegleria fowleri infections is 98%.

Tap water is generally safe for most purposes, and drinking a few of these guys isn’t a problem, since your stomach acid digests them pronto, as Jennifer Frazer over at the Artful Amoeba notes (also, she points out—these aren’t actually amoebas, but distant cousins, and yes, these are the same little guys that sometimes kill swimmers). But your deep nasal passages are quite a bit closer to your brain and aren’t equipped with such protection. Be careful, all you neti pot users out there. Sometimes the fine print has important information.

[via The Artful Amoeba]

Image courtesy of Aikhan / Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • alex fairchild


  • Michelle

    I used to wake up as a child to the sound of my father snuffing salt water up his nose. He had sinus problems all his life…maybe his cure was re-infecting him?

  • Scott

    I’d heard of the risk of brain infection before when I asked my doctor about using these. She said they weren’t safe. My brother swears by it, but my nasal passages are too open, the water fluxes to my ears and eyes and I got sick shortly after the only time I used one. Watch out folks.

  • Billy

    I’ve used a netti pot and it’s been really effective in cleansing my sinuses. Sinusitis can also be dangerous if it persists and the infection spreads. The risk of infection isn’t that great if used properly, so you should use sterilized tepid water and salt with no caking agent in. You should also know how to drain your sinuses properly afterwards so that no residual water is left. If the water doesn’t drain away properly it becomes the perfect breeding ground for incubating bacteria. Unfortunately when you wash away the mucus, you also clear out some of the anti-bacterial benefits.

    Netti pots definitely have their uses, and it should be remembered that physical and mental health are often linked.

  • Jerry Terry

    Something about this article just feels


    to me. But I’m not a doctor…

    So should we all stop swimming in lakes and fill our bathtubs and pools with distilled water? Afterall these “sometimes” kill swimmers! Oh noes!

    Why are these giant radioactive killer amoebas from outer space worse than other parasites and bacteria that can enter your sinuses when swimming or taking a freaking bath?

    Anyways, maybe every 2 weeks ill pick up a fresh gallon of distilled water for this purpose… but here’s one thing i do know. Your common cold symptoms are ~50% less and recovery from a cold is 50% faster when you cleanse your nasal passages. (just anecdotal experience. I am not a doctor)

  • Eric

    Yowza. Just last year my wife was prescribed neti pot treatments by an ER doc and no one mentioned such perils! I don’t recall if the neti pot instructions encouraged distilled/sterilized water, we’ve just used tap. . .I’ll have to go check the documentation! Better safe than brian munched – – thanks for the heads up!

  • Walter Lego

    I guess it much depends on where you live if you have the risk or not – the thing has to get into tap water from somewhere, and that thing does not live everywhere. So the question is: where people are at risk and where not?

  • han

    I was considering using a Neti pot when my nose ever got so congested again that I couldn’t sleep at night. Sounds like distilled water is the way to go.
    For the ‘really poor’ folks that can’t afford distilled water, is water that is cooked, once or twice, or whatever safe too? If so, what is the recommended nr of water cooking? (even when someone told me ‘twice’, I’d err on the side of caution.

  • Bruce

    One more reason to only swim in chlorinated water.

  • Richard

    Just to balance this article, can you do a piece on the dangers on the misuse of over the counter cold remedies.

    I’ve also heard that the water in some places isn’t quite up to the standard it should be:

  • Gil

    Does using the saline packs included with netipots lyse the protist, or must sterile water be used to prevent the risk?

  • dak

    I’ll take a box of kleenex….please and thankyou!! Disgusting…has never heard of such a thing and wish I still hadn’t.

  • Margo

    Neti pot instructions do tell you to use distilled or sterilized water. One of the descriptions they use is ‘previously boiled.’

  • fje

    Does anyone no if these people were using well water or city chlorinated water?

  • brucebutkis

    jesus folks the bottom line is read the darn directions and follow them. thats it! you simply dont use tap water. its not the device thats unsafe or puts you at risk its the moron that doesnt understand how to read the instructions and follow them.

  • biscuit

    Oh, the culture of fear that drives us so. Louisiana is for the most part a poverty stricken state, thus the water quality is not typical of most areas.

  • Mike

    Properly disinfected drinking water should not contain living microorganisms. The water system/provider is at fault and is not following EPA guidelines to produce safe drinking water.

  • Dunlaoghaire

    I live in LaPlace, La. We have had contaminated tap water off and on since I moved here 10+ years ago. Lately I’ve noticed bathwater has a very strong chlorine bleach odor.
    Now I know why. For 10 + year parish says problem will be fixed in next few weeks but no message to indicate when that few weeks will start.

    No net pot for me. Neti ……… not good down here.

  • heidi

    Please don’t blame the victims of this. Have you ever seen the Himalayan Neti-Pot’s video on how to use the device? It can easily be found on youtube. They take water directly out of the tap in the demo. Yes, the instructions on the box, read ONCE before throwing out the box, may say to use distilled or sterile water. The brand I used said to say distilled or drinking water–even Mayo’s site uses the word “drinking” water. NOWHERE on the instructions does it say that you might DIE if you don’t. All of a sudden now, people are calling these poor people who didn’t boil their water before using the pot, irresponsible, stupid and all kinds of degrading remarks. Why is this? If people had any idea that brain eating bacteria might be in the water they pay monthly to keep clean, don’t you think they would have gone to the extra effort? How merciless can you be?

  • John

    Totally agree Heidi. As a side note, I went yesterday to pickup more salt packets from our local CVS drugstore, but the store had pulled all of the packets from the shelves. Then tried to purchase the same type of Netti-pot (there was two of the same type on the shelves for $12. each that included 50 salt packets each) but when I got to the counter, they said that they could not sell them. Apparently the manufacture was recalling them. Which just sucks. Do you folks use plain table salt or ??

    Thanks John

  • Geack

    @ 5. Jerry – Bogus how? These people died from brain-eating bugs after pouring unsterile water into their noses. Not much room for confusion there. The fact that it’s rare is what makes it interesting.

    @ 10. “Balance this article”? Huh? The article provides some good advice on how to use these things safely. Why would you consider that an attack?

  • DAve

    Don’t be scared you nancies. In the last 10 years, there have been 37 deaths from N. fowleri. Do you know stats? No really scared at all. I shoot tap water up into my sinuses several times a year when allergies get bad. Haven’t died yet.

  • Leah

    Listen here people my niece died from this horrible amoeba She was only 11 years old, she got it from swimming in a warm fresh water lake in minnesota in 2008, it is very real and It is horrible, just be careful wear nose plugs when swimming in warm fresh water! And Dave if you ever have to watch someone die from this you would not make that kind of heartless comment!! It took her in three days, she went from not feeling well to gone in three days!

  • Bonnie

    I purchased my Neti Pot some years ago and I do not remember reading directions that said to use distilled water. I have used tap water for years. Directions did say to use table salt without Iodine. I certainly followed this direction. I don’t consider myself a moron or idiot. In the future I will use distilled water. Pictures of how to use the Neti Pot showed water coming from the tap. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those that died. To call them idiots or morons is just, too, cold. Do we need to add insult to injury.

  • Cheryle

    I use the Netti Pot alot and have never had a problem. I always use salt water! Glad to know about boiling water….much cheaper alternative. One should blow their nose several times after using.
    Also, I just tried the distilled water and it was horrible…burned my nose and made my “cry”. Never again with distilled water!!!

  • Ranger Jim Kirk

    Me, I stick to OTC saline nasal sprays. Less expensive and it works well enough for me.

  • Erin

    I WISH I could use a saline spray, except you have to be able to somewhat inhale the saline solution. I’m in nursing school and have heard great things about them. Don’t be dumb.. if you live in an area that has questionable tap water BOIL your water for 20 minutes then just add purified drinking water to cool it down to luke warm. I’ve never been so stopped up in my life and I’m going to finally try the Neti Pot tomorrow.

  • Barb

    I adore my neti pot. I always used warm tap water too until I heard of this and now I buy distilled, heat it in the microwave, add a little salt and voila!

    I have boiled tap water too, worked just as well.

  • Emily

    Two people in LA? Let’s think about how many (millions?) of people neti-pot, and over a loooooong period of time, and we’re concerned about two cases? This seems rare, and I’d like to see more data before making a decision about it.

  • JS

    I use it all the time, make sure you use the squeeze bottle and replace it every few months and only use distilled water and all is good. You can get the same parasite from swimming in warm fresh water and from uncooked snails


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