By Daniel J. DeNoon
Brain-eating amoeba in a neti pot? Yes, warns the Louisiana Department of Health.
Two recent deaths from the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri have been linked to use of neti pots. In both cases, the victims used tap water to fill the pots.
Neti pots are a good way to clean and clear the sinuses. But the pots should be filled with sterile water — either distilled water, or previously boiled water — with a small amount of non-iodized salt added according to instructions.
In June, a 20-year-old man in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, died from brain infection with the deadly amoeba. And this month, the state health department reported that a 51-year-old woman in DeSoto Parish died from the same rare amoeba infection.
Both deaths came after the victims irrigated their sinuses with neti pots filled with tap water.
Tap water isn’t supposed to be crawling with amoeba. Proper chlorination kills nearly all such bugs. But “nearly all” isn’t the same as “all” or “sterile.”
Fortunately, N. fowleri amoeba can’t hurt you if you swallow them in drinking water. Although the amoeba are disturbingly common, they rarely cause human illness. Most cases occur in people who swim or play in very warm water. In the U.S., this nearly always happens in Southern or Southwestern states.
Unfortunately, N. fowleri is attracted by the chemical messengers in human nerves. Once inside the nose, the amoeba travel up the olfactory nerve into the brain. It literally uses brain cells as a food source. Infection is almost always fatal.
The CDC is assisting the Louisianan Department of Health in investigating the source of the amoeba infections. Before now, the very few N. fowleri infections from tap water have come from untreated water systems.
Even if it turns out that the amoeba did not come from tap water, it’s a good idea to use sterile, distilled, or boiled water (cooled to body temperature) to mix neti pot solutions. Even water that is safe to drink may not be safe to pour through your nose.