February 22, 2008
Neti Pots Offer a Simple Solution to Nasal Woes
DALLAS -- Like an estimated 36 million Americans, Karen Lukin of Dallas suffers from sinus problems each spring.
She tried a sinus rinse at the recommendation of a prominent ear, nose and throat doctor, but it made her gag and seemed expensive.Then she embraced a holistic, low-tech alternative derived from ancient Ayurvedic medicine, practiced for centuries in India: the neti pot.
Lukin's introduction to this small appliance came by way of a thoroughly modern forum: "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Lukin saw Dr. Mehmet Oz discussing the benefits of washing the sinus cavities with a mild saline solution. What really intrigued her, however, was the demonstration by an audience member who held the spout of a neti pot to one nostril and tilted her head. Seconds later, a stream of saltwater ran out her other nostril.
"It looked pretty easy, and she didn't sputter or cough even once!" Lukin says.
She decided to try it.
Because she works for Whole Foods Market, Lukin didn't have to go far to find a neti pot. Whole Foods sells a ceramic neti pot for $16.50; you also can buy them at Walgreens, many health food stores and online, in all manner of materials, including plastic and glass, some for as little as $6. Most fine, non-iodized types of salt should do.
The purpose of nasal irrigation is to rinse the pollens and airborne irritants off of the nasal cilia (thousands of microscopic, hairlike growths in your nose).
`OLD AS THE AGES'
For Dr. David Khan, an associate professor of internal medicine specializing in allergies and immunology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, the neti pot's popularity is another case of "what's old is new again."
"It's really just another form of saltwater therapy, which is as old as the ages," Dr. Khan says. "Neti pots and similar devices are what we refer to as large-volume saltwater irrigation, which flushes out all of the mucus. It's one of the primary principles for treating sinus infections."
When Dr. John Van Wagoner broaches the topic of neti pots and similar therapies with his patients, they often look worried. He's a staff physician at Presbyterian Hospital of Plano, Texas, who specializes in pediatric and adult allergy, asthma and respiratory illness.
"It sounds barbaric or invasive, and people have been known to ask if I'm serious," he says. "There is a lot of anxiety" about the idea.
Van Wagoner often encourages patients with hay fever or recurrent or acute sinusitis to try it.
"It's not end-all, but it has the potential for really making a difference," he says.
Khan approves of the practice and of other techniques, including saline nose sprays that keep the area moist.
"We would all be better off if people would use more saltwater and less antibiotics for colds and sinus infections," he says.
Khan tells patients to dissolve one-quarter teaspoon of salt in one cup of water.
Measure carefully, he says, instead of using a salt shaker. If your water comes from a well, consider boiling the water or switching to distilled water to avoid bacteria.
Some neti pot makers, including the Himalayan Institute, which started selling them in the United States in 1972, also offer their own brands of salt; an 8-ounce bag, which contains no additives or anti-caking agents, sells for about $3 at www.himalayaninstitute.org.
Alena Miles, marketing manager for the institute's neti pot line, says her neti pot has kept her healthy for 10 years.
"I used to get really bad sinus infections, and now I don't," she says.
WHAT IT'S LIKE TO USE A NETI POT
For her test run, Karen Lukin said she followed directions.
"I dissolved \ teaspoon of fine salt in warm water. You can use warm water from the tap; many choose to use distilled water. ... Cold water is irritating, hot water is, well, hot. Ouch. Lukewarm is the key," she said.
Neti pot in hand, she stood over her sink, tilted her head with one ear toward a shoulder, then "put the spout of the teapotlike structure up against a nostril," the higher one.
"Magically, the flow of the water goes in one nostril and out the other," she said.
"I expected there to be a distinct sensation of a stream of water. But the main sensation is not the process of flowing water, just that something's coming out of the lower nostril. It's not an uncomfortable pressure, just an awareness of liquid."
And it didn't feel as if she were drowning when she repeated the procedure on the other side. Plus, she noticed no unpleasant aftertaste. But her ears popped.
She has a caution: "Carry a tissue with you for the next five minutes. If you have wacky sinuses like me, water hides and comes out a few minutes later if you turn your head a certain way."
Most recommendations say to use the neti pot once or twice daily, as needed; the cost per week is less than 30 cents.