Nasal Saline Irrigation and Neti Pots

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on February 27, 2023
5 min read

If you're one of the millions of Americans dealing with sinus problems, you know how uncomfortable facial pain and clogged nasal passages can be. In their search for relief, many have turned to nasal saline irrigation, a therapy that uses a saltwater solution to flush out the nasal passages.

Although several methods of nasal irrigation exist, one of the most popular is the neti pot, a ceramic or plastic pot that looks like a cross between a small teapot and Aladdin's magic lamp. Although nasal irrigation using the neti pot has been around for centuries, its use is on the rise in the U.S. The neti pot originally comes from the Ayurvedic/yoga tradition.

Some ear, nose, and throat surgeons recommend nasal irrigation for their patients who've had sinus surgery to clear away crusting in the nasal passages. Many people with sinus symptoms due to allergies and irritants in the environment also use neti pots or other nasal irrigation devices, saying they ease congestion and help with facial pain and pressure. 

Research backs up these claims, showing that nasal irrigation can be an effective way to relieve sinus symptoms when used along with standard treatments. For some people, nasal irrigation relieves sinus symptoms without the use of medications.

How does the neti pot work? At its most basic level, it thins mucus and helps flush it out of the nasal passages.

A more biological explanation has to do with tiny, hair-like structures called cilia that line the inside of your nasal and sinus cavities. These cilia wave back and forth to push mucus either to the back of the throat where it can be swallowed, or to the nose to be blown out. Saline solution can help increase the speed of the cilia and improve their coordination. This helps them better remove allergens and other irritants that cause sinus problems.

You can buy premade solutions meant for use in the neti pot or other nasal irrigation devices. But you can also make a saline solution at home. 

Mix 3 teaspoons of iodide- and preservative-free salt with 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Store in a small, clean container. When you’re ready to use the neti pot, mix 1 teaspoon of this mixture into 8 ounces of distilled, sterile, or boiled and cooled water. 

For children, use a half-teaspoon of salt with 4 ounces of water.

Neti pots usually come with an insert that explains how to use them. Be sure to follow these directions carefully. You might want to ask your primary care doctor or an ear, nose, and throat specialist to talk you through the process before trying a neti pot on your own.

Fill the neti pot with the saline solution. Tilt your head over a sink at about a 45-degree angle. Place the spout into your top nostril, and gently pour the solution into that nostril.

The fluid will flow through your nasal cavity and out the other nostril. It may also run into your throat. If this happens, just spit it out. Blow your nose to get rid of any remaining liquid, then refill the neti pot and repeat the process on the other side. Always rinse your Neti pot or other irrigation device after each use, and leave it open to air dry.

If you notice burning or stinging when you use the saline solution, cut the amounts of dry ingredients to make it weaker.

Research has found that the neti pot, used as directed, is generally safe. A few regular users have mild side effects, such as nasal irritation and stinging. You can also get nosebleeds, but they’re rare. Reducing the amount of salt in your solution, using the neti pot less often, and changing the temperature of the water may help reduce side effects. 

But it’s possible to get a potentially serious infection from nasal irrigation. To prevent this, take these precautions:

Never use unboiled tap water for nasal irrigation. Some tap water contains bacteria or other harmful organisms. It’s safe to drink since your stomach acid kills them. But they can live in your nasal passages. 

Take proper care of your device. Nasal irrigation devices can harbor bacteria, too. Before you use it, wash your hands and make sure the device is clean and dry. After using it, always wash it thoroughly. You can wash it by hand or put it in the dishwasher if it's dishwasher-safe. Let your device air-dry completely between uses.  Replace your neti pot every few months or as its directions recommend. 

If you have side effects from using a neti pot or develop an infection, talk to your doctor.

In studies, people with daily sinus symptoms got relief from using a neti pot or other nasal irrigation system daily. Three times a week was often enough once their symptoms eased. 

But using it too often can irritate your nasal passages. And it might be counterproductive to use it daily for a long time. 

The mucus in our nasal passages helps to protect us against infection. It captures germs and irritants before they enter our bodies and can even kill some bacteria.  Some experts think that when you flush out mucus with nasal irrigation, you lose some of that protection. 

That’s why it might not be a good idea to use nasal irrigation as a preventive when you don’t have any sinus symptoms. Some experts say you should use it for no more than 1-3 weeks at a time. 

If your symptoms don't improve, see your doctor. They can figure out what’s causing the problem and find the right  treatment.

Research has found that the Neti pot is generally safe. A small number of regular users experience mild side effects, such as nasal irritation and stinging. Nosebleeds can also occur, but they are rare. Reducing the amount of salt in the solution, adjusting the frequency of Neti pot use, and changing the temperature of the water may help to reduce side effects. 

To help prevent infection, always use distilled, sterile, or previously boiled water. Also, it's important to properly care for your nasal irrigation device. Either wash the device thoroughly by hand, or put it in the dishwasher if it's dishwasher-safe. Follow by drying the device completely after each use.

If you experience side effects or develop an infection, talk to your doctor.

Neti pots are available over-the-counter at many drugstores, health food stores, and online retailers. They usually cost between $10 and $30.