If you have never used a neti pot before, you must have at least heard of it. This small, simple nasal irrigation device can help clear up congestion from a cold or allergies by rinsing your nasal cavities. They look and seem harmless, but neti pots can pose a real danger. Case in point: After using non-sterile water in her neti pot, a Seattle woman died from a rare brain-eating amoeba.
The 69-year-old was admitted to Swedish Medical Center earlier this year after suffering a seizure. What doctors initially thought was a brain tumor turned out to be a much dreadful condition, one that was literally eating the woman alive. A rare amoeba (called Balamuthia mandrillaris) was feasting on her brain, according to a recent study published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases (IJID). The woman died about a month later.
“When I operated on this lady, a section of her brain about the size of a golf ball was bloody mush,” Charles Cobbs, MD, neurosurgeon at Swedish, told the Seattle Times. “There were these amoeba all over the place just eating brain cells. We didn’t have any clue what was going on, but when we got the actual tissue we could see it was the amoeba.”
The research concluded that the woman contracted the infection about a year earlier. The cause: She used a neti pot filled with non-sterile water to treat a sinus infection. The report states she used tap water that had been filtered by a Brita water purifier.
Shortly after contracting the amoeba, the woman developed a red sore on her nose, which was misdiagnosed as the common skin condition rosacea.
If you’re not familiar with how neti pots work, here’s a walk through: You fill the pot with sterile water and a mixture of salt and baking soda. With your head tilted over a sink, you gently pour the solution into the nostril on top. Your mouth should be open so you can breathe; the solution then goes in one nostril and out the other.
Though an infection like the one this woman had is rare, doctors are urging people to use only sterile water in neti pots. Because the water goes directly up your nose, it’ll be close to your brain—so it’s crucial no microbes are lingering in the liquid.
If you’re interesting in trying out a neti pot to clear your nasal passages, you can find a variety on Amazon (here are some of our favorites). Just remember, always use sterile water. Your amoeba-free brain will thank you.