Neti Pots: Better Than They Sound

Chances are someone you know has raved about using a neti pot or at least you’ve got an idea of what they are. But maybe you think washing out your nose sounds gross or scary, or perhaps you’ve been intrigued but are too nervous to try it? I was once like you. I’d been told how great they were for years but resisted because I thought it would make me feel like I was drowning. Then one day I went to a new doctor who ordered me to start using one, and I caved, and now I am a full-blown neti pothead. I guarantee that using one is not nearly as hard or nasty as you think it’ll be. Plus, flushing out all the slime from your nose can be satisfying in the same way that cleaning your house can be. You’ll walk around feeling light and accomplished because your sinuses are so sparkling and fresh!

So what exactly is a neti pot? It is a cute little pitcher that’s usually shaped like what I imagine a genie’s lamp looks like. You fill it with salt water, and then pour the water into one nostril, which is easier and less terrifying than it sounds. Gravity then pulls the water through your sinuses and it comes pouring out of your other nostril, along with a bunch of goop it’s collected along the way. Yes, it may sound a little unpleasant, but I promise it doesn’t hurt, and once you get the hang of it, it actually feels good! It’s a practice that has been used for centuries in India and has become ever more popular in the United States. (Dr. Oz even talked about it on Oprah, so you know it’s legit.)

Why would you want to flush your sinuses out with salt water? Lots of reasons: it helps clear congestion during a cold (and can make them go away faster), it can prevent and treat sinus infections, reduce allergies, help you breathe more easily, and just generally keep your respiratory system in better health. Neti pots work because they remove the dirt and bacteria and the dried mucousy clumps which like to hang out in your precious nasal caves and cause problems. The water can reach places you can’t get clear simply by blowing your nose or reaching in with your finger (which you would never do, of course). So even if the idea of pouring water into your sinuses sounds icky, just remind yourself that tiny bacteria making a nice home in your face is even ickier. Hey, you clean your mouth and your ears out, why not treat your sinuses with the same respect?

I started using a neti pot about seven years ago after suffering from a lifetime of terrible sinus infections. For years, I essentially had a sinus infection all winter long, and I was on antibiotics for weeks and sometimes months at a time, which didn’t do much for the infections (as science later proved) and was not good for me. I even had two sinus operations. The first didn’t really help; the second helped a bit, but the only thing that’s consistently kept the infections away is using the neti pot once a day. I went from always having a stuffy nose and pressure in my face to almost never having problems — in fact, I cannot even remember the last time I had a sinus infection. It also really helps keep my allergies in check, though I do still have issues when the pollen gets ridiculously high like it is right now.

I’ve converted many of my friends over the years and now they swear by them too. I admit that neti pots are not for everyone — for instance, if you never have any nasal issues (how nice for you!) or if the thought of having water in your nose is deeply traumatizing, then probably better not to go there. But if you ever have any stuffy/runny nose, allergy, or infection issues, and you’re even the tiniest bit curious, please do give the neti pot a try!

So first things first, you need to buy one. Neti pots can usually be found in natural/health foods stores, most drug stores, and even some grocery stores. (Whole Foods sells them, for instance.) I have no specific brand to recommend, since they’re all variations on the same shape. They come in ceramic and plastic. I use a plastic one since I’m clumsy and am afraid of breaking a ceramic one, but either one will do the job. They’re not expensive, usually costing somewhere from $8 to $14 dollars, and they last forever. (There are also electric sinus irrigation machines and these plastic squeezable bulbs that use more force to get the water into your sinuses, but I can’t vouch for these since I’ve never tried them.)

The second element of neti-potting is the saline solution. To make it, all you need is salt and water. There are a two options for salt. The first is to just buy regular sea or kosher salt. (You don’t want table salt that has additives like anti-caking agents). Or they sell salts specifically for use in neti pots (which are usually right next to the neti pots at the store). These “special salts” are generally just regular salt that they’re charging more for — sometimes they come in individual packets (not really very useful) and sometimes it’s more finely ground so it dissolves faster (a little bit helpful). Some brands also have baking soda in them. I don’t use these because my doctor told me baking soda was unnecessarily drying, and I wasn’t able to find any evidence that it has other benefits. I have used both normal and “special” salts and haven’t noticed a huge amount of difference. Right now I am using Ancient Secrets Nasal Cleansing Salt because it comes in a smaller container that fits more easily in my bathroom cabinet, and it has a little measuring spoon which is kind of convenient. But if you already have sea salt lying around the house, by all means use it.

Once you’ve got your pot and your salt, it’s time to mix the saline solution and then get irrigating! After you get to be a pro, you can mix the solution right in the neti pot itself, but to begin it’s easier to use a glass or measuring cup. Start with one cup of lukewarm water that’s similar to your body’s temperature. (If you put a drop on your wrist you shouldn’t notice that it’s hot or cold.) You really don’t want to use water that’s too hot (because it will KILL when it hits your delicate sinus tissue), so it’s better to err on the side of being a bit too cool. Then add in ¼ teaspoon of the salt and stir it around until the salt dissolves. Dip your (clean) finger into the solution and taste a drop of it — it should taste just the slightest bit salty, sort of like tears. Some people prefer their saline a little more or less salty, and you can play around with the measurements over time. But as you’re getting used to the neti pot, it’s better to use less salty water because if the water is too salty it will burn like a motherf*cker, and you will shriek and hop around and swear. So, don’t get overzealous with the salt!

Now that you are like goldilocks and your solution is just right, it’s time to actually do the deed. Fair warning: the first few times you use the neti pot it will feel weird, and you will think that you are not doing it right, and you might even get a little frustrated. But I promise if you give it just a few tries, by the third or fourth time you’ll get the hang of it and then it will be smooth sailing! So because things can be a bit messy at first, I recommend using the neti pot while standing in the bathtub, perhaps before you take a shower. Here is what you do:

1) Pour half of the saline solution into your neti pot.

2) Hold the neti pot in your right hand and bend your head forward while you turn to look to the right. The left side of your face should be parallel with the floor. Open your mouth a bit and breathe exclusively through your mouth.

3) Place the spout of the neti pot into your right nostril, making sure it’s really in there and the nostril has sealed around it.

4) Tip the neti pot up so that the water begins to flow into your nose. At this point you will begin to feel the water moving through your sinuses, which is a strange sensation. Don’t panic. Focus on breathing through your mouth.

5) After a second, if you’re at the right angle, the water will start flowing out of your left nostril. Finding and maintaining this flow of the water is the trickiest part, and you may need to play around a bit with the tilt of your head to find the optimal angle. If you feel water going down into your throat, tip your head down a bit and make sure you’re breathing through your mouth. (Note: if you are really congested, this may not work easily. Blow your nose a few times and retry the neti pot. Or try starting with the other nostril first. Normally after a little persistence the water will come trickling through and start to clear your passages as it does. If you aren’t congested and truly cannot get water through, go to the doctor because you may have a nasal blockage that’s worth getting checked out.)

6) Once you’ve poured all the water from the pot into your nose, and it’s drained out the other side, turn face down, and gently blow both nostrils out. You may see some nasty goop coming out with the water — good riddance!

7) I usually like to turn my head back and forth a little bit (like I’m slowly shaking my head “no.”) to make sure that any water that’s lingering up there flows down and out my nose.

8) Now you do the same thing on your left side (turn your head to the left, put the spout in your left nostril, etc.), using the other half of the saline solution that remains.

9) Once you’re done with both sides, I suggest bending down to touch your toes and hanging your head down there for a second. As you come back up slowly, there may be a bit more water that drains out of your nose. I find doing this cuts way back on instances of sudden nose running in the half-hour or so after you use the neti pot. Immediately after you’re done, it may feel like your sinuses are a little wet (for obvious reasons), and you may also need to blow your nose a few times, but usually after a few minutes they dry out and then your sinuses feel extra clean and you can breathe more clearly than before!

Here’s a video of a terrifyingly serene woman who demonstrates the basic technique in action:

That woman makes it look effortless, but as I’ve said, it may be not be quite so easy for you at first. Just be patient and practice a bit, and soon you’ll be able to do it standing over the sink without making a mess. Once you’ve got the whole routine down, it will take you less than two minutes to do. You can do it as often as you like. I do it every morning, but you could do it twice a day if you’re really congested, or a few times a week for maintenance, or just as needed when you have a cold or allergies. After experimenting for a few weeks, you’ll figure out a schedule that works best for you. (Bonus tip: I find it’s particularly good to do after flying because it moistens my sinuses up after all that dry plane air and, at least in my mind, flushes out anything I might catch from my sniffling fellow passengers.)

Yes, the whole thing takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you get hooked, I bet you’ll find it feels as essential as washing your face or using Q-tips. If you go a few days without doing it, you’ll notice your sinuses start to feel stale and sad. And hopefully with regular use, you’ll find that you have a lot fewer colds, sinus infections, and annoying allergy problems. In case you need one final bit of encouragement, I just came up with a new slogan: Don’t be a snot, use your neti pot!

If you have health problems, check with your doctor before using a neti pot. Also, no one is giving me money to recommend any of these things.