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If you rinse your sinuses, simple things can save your life

Experts recommend not using plain tap water for sinus rinse kits.
Experts recommend not using plain tap water for sinus rinse kits. AP

Tap water is safe to drink, but using it to rinse your sinuses without first sterilizing it can be dangerous, according to public health officials.

The Seattle Times reported Thursday that a rare amoeba killed a Seattle woman after she used tap water treated with a basic over-the-counter water filter to rinse her sinuses with a Neti Pot. The organisms apparently were transferred from the water through her sinus cavity to her brain.

The woman’s case study was published originally in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases in September. The study describes the patient as having suffered from chronic sinus infection, with the sinus rinse being recommended for relief.

A month after starting the sinus rinse, she developed a rash and what was first thought to be rosacea on her nose.

A year after the rash appeared she suffered a seizure. Surgeons discovered the brain-wasting damage, and the woman later died.

The report in the infectious disease journal called for doctors to be aware of this type of progression as a risk.

“Clinicians should be aware that patients who develop a nasal rash after sinus irrigation with nonsterile saline washes might be at high risk of amoeba skin infection,” according to the report.

Makers of the Neti Pot sinus rinse, available over the counter at most drugstores and general retail stores, offer detailed instructions on the proper use of the product within the packaging and stress the need for sterile water and supplies.

There’s also a five page document online on how to use it. Among the tips:

Don’t share it with others.

“Always use sterilized water, such as boiled or distilled water, during nasal cleansing. If you boil your water, please make sure it is cooled to body temperature before using in your Neti Pot.”

Boiling/sterilization is mentioned more than once in the online guide, in bold type.

Dry the inside of the product thoroughly or let it air dry between uses.

“Periodically place (the pot) in your dishwasher for a thorough sanitizing.”

The Food and Drug Administration, in a page on its site covering the safety of sinus rinses, notes, “Tap water isn’t safe for use as a nasal rinse because it’s not adequately filtered or treated. Some tap water contains low levels of organisms — such as bacteria and protozoa, including amoebas — that may be safe to swallow because stomach acid kills them. But in your nose, these organisms can stay alive in nasal passages and cause potentially serious infections. They can even be fatal.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its site lists recommended water filters: “Use a filter designed to remove some water-loving germs. The label may read “NSF 53” or “NSF 58.” Filter labels that read “absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller” are also effective.”

Or, buy water marked distilled or sterile. Or boil water and let cool.

Bottom line, proper hygiene and sanitizing is critical.

As Sam Perry, a water treatment engineer with the state Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, told The News Tribune on Thursday, tap water is “safe for drinking, but for nasal irrigation, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.”