Looks like our favorite misanthrope has a bit of a sniffle. Luckily, there are science approved solutions to clearing out one’s nose. Though, like all things, it is apparently not without risks.

I had vaguely known about neti pots for quite a while, having seen ads for them here and there. But I never bothered to look into what they did until news began to spread of two people in Louisiana dying as a result of using them. Before this, I had thought that one would boil water and simply breathe in the steam to alleviate congestion. The truth deemed much less comfortable, and it’s funny name and tendency to appear in the dark vortex of woo that inhabits the center of my local supermarket, initially made me suspicious. But even cursory research led me to find that it had indeed been validated—passing the muster of scientific rigor. So what’s with the dying? What was going on here?

The culprit in the two deaths was a small protist called Naegleria fowleri. It’s a common organism, living in most fresh water bodies, with a neat ability (like many of its sort) to change modes of locomotion with the proper stimuli. The ability to transform into an amoeboid form, complete with pseudopods, lends to some confusion of it’s classification as an amoeba (even the CDC website lists it as such), which it is not. It’s completely harmless to ingest and one would probably never hear about it if not for a rare loophole that allows it to become one of the deadliest organisms on the planet.

Our brain has a hole in its defenses. Many holes in fact. See, unlike sight and sound, which connect to the brain via organs that reside outside of the neurocranium (or braincase), our sense of smell is a direct connection. Nerves from the olfactory bulb reach out through the skull and into the nasal cavity. When molecules touch these nerves, they send signals back to the brain, which get interpreted as smells. What this means is, yes, when you smell poop, it’s because there are poop molecules brushing up against your BRAIN. Sort of.

N. fowleri exploits this weakness, travelling through the sinus cavity and up into the brain much like Luke’s well placed proton torpedo in the Death Star’s exhaust port. Normally, this is a very difficult journey. Your nose is full of mucus and it’s rare that you end up with a nose full of pond water. But it does happen on occasion (three times this year) and like the comic says, the neti pot gives it a free ride. Symptoms of infection include a change in taste or smell, headaches, stiff neck, hallucinations, ataxia, seizures, and finally, death.

So where does that leave us with the neti pot? Is it a dangerous remedy? No, with a caveat.

While it can only offer short-term relief, it has been shown to be quite effective at it. The key is in proper usage, and avoiding risk factors. Occurrences of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) are rare and highly preventable, but worth keeping in mind if you plan on using a neti pot. In both of this year’s deaths, the victims used unsterilized water, which shot the normally harmless protist directly onto their olfactory nerves. Bam. Star Wars.



This post was brought to you by Osmium (Os).

For more about the recent neti pot deaths, you can read Scott Huler and Jennifer Frazer’s articles over at SciAm Blogs

Thanks to everyone who replied on Facebook, giving me a sense of how widespread this weird little neti pot’s usage was, as well as the various forms of nasal irrigation available. Also thanks to my microbiologist friends for allowing me to pester you with questions.