Anyone who has ever played in rough surf at the shore can tell you there’s nothing quite so bracing as having cold seawater forced through your nasal passages. While initially unpleasant, this forced irrigation sometimes results in unexpected, but not unwelcome, relief from clogged sinuses.

Perhaps it was just such an experience that inspired the invention of the neti pot in India long ago. People have been using neti pots and other forms of voluntary nasal irrigation for many years to relieve the annoying symptoms of allergies.

Among the worst symptoms of nasal allergies, also called allergic rhinitis, are excess mucus production, stuffy nose, runny nose, and irritated nasal passages and sinuses.

Some people with allergies also develop a condition called chronic rhinosinusitis. This continually inflamed condition is characterized by irritated or even infected sinus cavities.

Read on to learn about nasal irrigation and whether it can provide you with allergy relief.

Centuries ago, practitioners of Ayurveda, a traditional Indian medicine system, pioneered the use of warm salt water to flush nasal cavities and remove excess mucus, pollen, and other debris.

Also known as nasal douche or nasal lavage, nasal irrigation uses two simple ingredients: salt water and a neti pot. A neti pot is a vessel specifically designed to deliver a stream of salt water into your nasal cavities through one nostril and out the other. Practitioners usually do this one to four times per day, with no dip in the sea required.

Supporters of the technique claim it offers significant relief from nasal congestion and irritation.

They also claim it can reduce headaches associated with sinus congestion and allow people to rely less on antibiotics to treat sinus infections. It can decrease the use of nasal corticosteroid sprays to control allergy-related nasal inflammation.

Users report feeling empowered to take control of their allergies and claim that nasal irrigation delivers significant improvements in their quality of life.

Experts have conducted numerous clinical trials on nasal irrigation, and most agree that it’s safe and well tolerated. At worst, they note that the procedure can be cumbersome. It requires more effort than other options, such as taking medications.

At best, nasal irrigation provides significant improvements in a wide range of allergy symptoms.

A 2000 study at the University of California San Diego examined more than 200 people who used the procedure. Participants experienced “statistically significant improvements” in 23 out of 30 symptoms. They also saw improvements in subjective quality-of-life ratings.

A 2009 survey article concluded that saline nasal irrigation is safe and effective for people with several conditions, including:

  • chronic rhinosinusitis
  • viral upper respiratory infections
  • allergic rhinitis

There are a few caveats, however.

Don’t use on infants

Nasal irrigation shouldn’t be used on infants.

Don’t use regularly

Regular use of nasal irrigation may actually increase your risk of sinus infection. You can use nasal irrigation occasionally without any risk, but try not to do it on a regular basis. Routine use may remove some protective elements of the mucus membranes lining your nasal passages and sinuses.

Only use sterile water

One final warning: It’s crucial to use sterile water to prepare the irrigation solution. Boiling before use should be sufficient.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that a parasitic amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, has been linked to several deaths among neti pot users who did not use sterile water. Once introduced into the sinuses, the parasite makes its way to the brain, causing an infection that is fatal.

A neti pot is a simple device that looks like a small teapot. To use a neti pot:

  1. Mix warm, sterile water with pure salt in the pot before you start.
  2. Place the spout in your nostril on top while tilting your head slightly to one side.
  3. Let the saline solution drain through your bottom nostril.

As noted above, it’s crucial to use sterile water. Create a saline solution by adding the correct amount of pure, noniodized sodium chloride to the water, to make one of two solutions:

  • Isotonic. This is a 0.9 percent saline solution, or 9 grams of sodium chloride dissolved in 1 liter of water.
  • Hypertonic. This is a 1.5 percent to 3 percent salt solution.

Kosher salt or sea salt are suitable sources of pure sodium chloride with no added minerals. The New York Sinus Center warns against using table salt or iodized salt.

Don’t attempt nasal irrigation with tap water. Using sterile water is essential for safety, and salt prevents the uncomfortable burning sensation associated with using solutions that aren’t isotonic.

Isotonic solutions contain enough dissolved solids to match the concentration of solutes dissolved in the blood. Not surprisingly, sea water is essentially a hypertonic solution of salt and water. However, never use sea water deliberately for nasal irrigation — doing so can increase the risk of introducing unwanted contaminants.

Neti pots are a great, natural way to relieve nasal congestion and allergies, as long as you use sterile water and don’t use them too frequently. They have been a part of Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years. Be sure to ask your doctor if you have any concerns about nasal irrigation.