By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina

I want to tell you about the Aladdin’s lamp of nasal health, the neti pot. Shaped like a little lamp or teapot, it is a simple and perfectly designed way of delivering salt water into irritated nasal passages. You put a 1/2 teaspoon of salt, more or less, in the neti pot, dissolve it with warm, clean water, then with your head over the sink and turned to the side, simply pour the solution into each nostril. This flushes out mucus, debris, pollen, and inflammatory cells and molecules.

The sinuses are like little side closets off the nasal passages, with tiny openings called ostia.This little door into a bigger room can easily be blocked by inflammation, swelling and infection. The nasal saline wash can help open these portals and facilitate drainage from the sinuses. A buildup in the sinus of mucus, fluid, and pus can lead to the excruciating pain and facial pressure of sinusitis. While antibiotics can occasionally be useful in this condition, establishing drainage is a first principle.

While suffering through a recent respiratory infection myself, I looked around the house for something to wash out my blocked nasal passages that kept draining into my throat and triggering a harsh, barking, nonproductive cough. All I could find was a salad dressing cruet, an awkward globular glass container with a handle and pouring spout. I struggled with this for a couple days while my wife, taking pity on me and simultaneously seeking some sleep relief from my continuous cough, ordered a neti pot online.When it arrived, we were both pleased with its shape and ease of use. It looks like a little teapot from a dollhouse. In fact, the sea foam green color and aesthetic style made me want to display it in the kitchen window, along with our other crockery (after sterilizing it by washing it, of course).The wise wife vetoed this bit of medical home décor.

When I first heard about the neti pot, I remember thinking it was something a bit naughty, you know like a naughty pot. Just the name suggested to me something a French courtesan might keep in her bidet for private ablutions, which I preferred not to consider. On the other hand, it might also have been an object of service in a hashish den, offering some relief between hits on the water pipe. Such confused musings come from an uninformed and perhaps sick mind.
Neti just means “nasal washing” in Sanskrit and such a treatment has been a part of Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Recent scientific studies confirm that nasal washing reduced acute and chronic sinusitis, allergic rhinitis, viral respiratory infections, and other rhinosinusitis. It decreases symptoms, improves quality of life and reduces the use of medications.

Most primary care doctors and ear-nose-throat specialists regularly recommend saltwater nasal washings as part of good nasal hygiene for these kinds of conditions.

Be aware that you need to use distilled, filtered or boiled water, so as not to introduce bacteria, fungi, or other organisms, like amoebas, into your sinuses. If you take a nasal steroid prescription for allergies, I advise using the neti pot to clear the nasal passages before insufflating the expensive medication. This makes it work better, as well as being more cost-effective. If you cough a lot from postnasal drainage at night, be sure to use the neti pot at bedtime.
You probably won’t find much success with the neti pot in the pediatric group, where the rubber bulb syringe remains the tool of choice for nasal irrigation. A clear example was my 6-year-old granddaughter, Serenity, who glared at me incredulously when I offered to show her how to use the neti pot for her little nose.After having seen me demonstrate it on myself, she said an unequivocal,“No way!”

The next time you feel stuffed and blocked in the nose and sinuses, reach for your neti pot.Instead of looking for a pill, a decongestant, antihistamine, an antibiotic or making a phone to call your doctor, the neti pot ought be your first choice. Mine cost under $10, less than the cost of a copay or over the counter medications, neither of which might help all that much anyway to promote your nasal health.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.