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Do you remember when the Oprah Winfrey Show introduced the world to the Neti pot?
In case you missed it, Neti (or Nehti) pots are gravy boat shaped vessels used to irrigate the sinuses with salt water. You simply tilt your head to one side, insert the spout of the pot into the upper nostril, tip the pot so the salt water flows into your nose and then it - surprise- drains out of your other nostril. Then tilt your head the opposite way and repeat. This technique of flushing the sinsuses with salt water removes mucous and reduces congestion.
While the practice is ancient, the Neti pot was introduced to a mainstream audience on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2007. When describing the Neti pot during an episode with Dr Oz, Oprah humorously referred to the pot as a “nose bidet.” (The process of rinsing the sinuses is more accurately described as “nasal lavage.” ) They then demonstrated the technique on audience member Amy Huffhines of Mansfield, Texas who had been suffering from daily sinus headaches. Huffhines swore by the results and, with the nationally televised blessing of Oprah and Dr. Oz, sales of the Neti Pot skyrocketed. Years later it remains a popular home remedy for nasal congestion. But what does science say about the Neti pot? Does it really work? Here are 4 things that Oprah (and Dr. Oz) got right about Neti pots as well as 4 things that were not quite so “on the nose.”
4 Things Oprah got right about the Neti pot
1. It really works
According to medical research, rinsing your sinuses with a Neti pot (or other salt water delivery devices ) really can reduce nasal congestion. The process is especially effective after you’ve had sinus surgery. According to a 2018 report published in the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews, studies have found that saline irrigation may reduce the severity of chronic sinusitis in adults and children for up to at least three months with no negative side effects. The results where especially encouraging since in some cases saline irrigation can be a cheap (and safe) substitute for antihistamines and intranasal steroids. As Dr. Oz pointed out, the treatment can also help avoid complications of sinusitis.
2. It’s all natural
For a variety of reasons, many people prefer “natural” treatments. It’s not scientifically accurate to assume any treatment is better simply because it is naturally sourced rather than synthetic. Nonetheless, the Neti pot process can be considered natural because the saline mixture contains only USP grade sodium chloride (salt) with sodium bicarbonate added as a buffering agent.
3. Don’t use cold water, or you’ll get a “head rush”
The TV audience was advised to use room temperature water when flushing the sinuses because the experience can be an uncomfortable. Using cold water can make the process feel much worse! Be sure to allow the water to equilibrate to room temperature before using your Neti pot.
4. It can save you money on cold medicine
Huffhines commented that since she's started using a Neti pot she's spent less money on other cold medications. As noted in the study cited above, nasal irrigaton can be a cost savings alternative for certain over the counter medications. For example a generic Flonase® Allergy Relief spray can cost as much as $0.26 per application while a saline rinse packet can cost as little as $0.12 per application (that’s not including the cost of the Neti Pot itself.) Of course, saline irrigation alone will not resolve all nasal and sinus conditions so you should check with your doctor if your symptoms persist. It’s also important to note that while saline irrigation can reduce reliance on cold medications, it can also be a delivery system for certain prescription medications. Check with your sinus specialist for more information.
4 Things that were not so right
1. The type of water is important
Surprisingly, Dr. Oz failed to mention that the type of water you use in the Neti pot is very imporant. Only distilled water should be used because tap water can contain bacteria. These bacteria are not a problem when you're drinking tap water because they are destoyed by the acid in your stomach. But, when sprayed directly into the nose, they bacteria can grow. The FDA has warned that using improperly purified water can lead to infections and even…gasp…brain eating amoebae!
2. Sinus rinsing doesn’t make your nose hairs grow
Dr. Oz told the Oprah audience that using the Neti pot “…washes out the nose and lets the little hairs in there grow and prosper they way they’re supposed to be prospering to move the mucous around…” He’s correct that nasal irrigation washes out the nose but that has nothing to do with the growth of the cilia, the tiny hairs in your nose that help sweep out mucous.
3. Probiotics don’t help with chronic sinusitis
Dr. Oz also mentioned that some people benefit from taking probiotics because they…”don’t have the inflammatory process that sometimes causes sinusitis.” He's partially correct if he's talking specifically about allergies. There have been a number of studies showing probiotics can help reduce the effects of some respiratory allergies by strengthening the immune system.
Theoretically, probiotics could also have some effect on chronic sinus infections but so far that has not been scientifically proven. According to a 2014 review published in the Journal of Allergies, "there are no current data to support the use of probiotics in non-Allergic Rhinitis or Chronic Recalcitrant Sinusitis."
4. Neti pots treat the symptoms, not the cause
Rachel, one of the producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show, was another test patient on the episode. She stated that she suffered from allergies since she was little and she said that sinus irrigation helps her breathe at night and that she doesn’t blow her nose so many times during the day. Just remember that the Neti pot can only treat the sympoms, not the cause, of nasal congestion. If you have respiratory allergies and are also experiencing sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes then the Neti pot alone will not be enough.
A final note: you should buy generic
There’s no magic (or to put it more accurately there’s no differentiating technology) behind the Neti pot. There are many other similar products across a range of different price points. One popular brand is Neilmed which offers a variety of squeeze bottle delivery systems for sinus irrigation. And if you’re too lazy to squeeze a bottle they even have an aerosolized spray. You can also find generic sinus rinses at your local pharmacy. Pro tip: even if you like the look and feel of the more expensive Neti pot you can save a lot of money by buying a generic brand of saline refills.
To learn more
If you suffer from sinus problems and you want to learn more about using saline irrigation (either alone or with medication) you can schedule a consulation with Dr. Nadia Caballero at Advanced Sinus and Allergy Center. Dr. Caballero, located in Park Ridge, IL, in the northwest Chicago area, is one of the top fellowship trained Rhinologists in the country and she specializes in nasal congestion. Call (847) 655-7442 or click the “Request Appointment” button on this page.