By Ray Hainer
FRIDAY, December 16, 2011 (Health.com) — Louisiana health officials are warning residents not to use nonsterilized tap water in neti pots after the deaths of two people who exposed their brains to a deadly amoeba while flushing out their nasal passages.
The amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, can be found in lakes and ponds as well as in contaminated lukewarm tap water. The organism doesn't pose a threat when ingested, but if it becomes lodged in a person's nose it can end up in the brain and cause an infection.
The infection, lethal in 95% of cases, triggers an array of symptoms that resemble those of bacterial meningitis, including vomiting, headaches and sleepiness. As it progresses, it can cause changes in a person’s behavior and lead to confusion and hallucinations. It usually causes death within one to 12 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals issued its warning after a 51-year-old woman in DeSoto Parish died after rinsing her sinuses with a neti pot, a small vessel used to pour warm water into one nostril and out the other. Earlier this year, a 20-year-old man near New Orleans died after contracting the infection in the same way.
"Tap water is safe for drinking, but not for irrigating your nose," said Dr. Raoult Ratard, Louisiana state epidemiologist in a statement. Ratard urged neti-pot users to fill the pots only with distilled, sterile, or previously boiled water, and to rinse and dry them after each use.
The infection, known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis, is extremely rare. In the previous decade, just 32 cases have been reported in the United States, according to the CDC. Only one person is known to have survived.
Deaths involving neti pots are even more rare. Most deaths from the amoeba, including three last summer, occur in Southern states during the summer, when people swim in warm freshwater where Naegleria fowleri lurks.
CNN's Madison Park contributed to this report.