When a woman began having odd, unexplainable symptoms, doctors tried desperately to save her. What started as a rash, led to a seizure, and ended with her losing her life. But, it wasn’t until surgeons saw her brain that they realized her common yet fatal mistake. And, they warn it could happen again.
Dr. Charles Cobbs, a neurosurgeon at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, wasn’t prepared for what he’d find when he operated on a 69-year-old Seattle woman. The case had stumped doctors, but eventually, a CT scan revealed what they believed was a brain tumor. When they opened her up, however, they realized they were dealing with something even deadlier.
The woman was admitted through the hospital’s emergency department after suffering a seizure. Initially, however, she had a simple sinus infection. Then, about a month later, she noticed a quarter-size red rash on her nose and raw red skin at her nasal opening, according to Komo News. Despite several visits to her doctor, the persistent rash continued.
A year later, she suffered the seizure, landing her in the hospital and under the care of Dr. Charles Cobbs. After the CT scan revealed a 1.5-centimeter lesion, she underwent brain surgery to remove what they thought was a tumor. Instead, doctors discovered the woman’s brain was literally being eaten alive.
“When I operated on this lady, a section of her brain about the size of a golf ball was bloody mush,” Dr. Cobbs recalled, according to The Seattle Times. “There were these amoeba all over the place just eating brain cells. We didn’t have any clue what was going on, but when we got the actual tissue we could see it was the amoeba.”
Samples of brain tissue were sent for examination by neurologists at John Hopkins, and the analysis confirmed the woman had a rare brain-eating amoebic infection. Doctors believe the parasitic organisms entered the woman’s body through her nose.
While suffering the sinus infection a year earlier, the patient used a common home remedy known as a Neti Pot. The teapot-shaped product is used to rinse the sinuses and nasal cavity, a process called nasal lavage, to bring relief. But, in this woman’s case, it introduced amoeba instead. She was given medication, but sadly, it was too late, and she died a month later.
Following her passing, additional studies revealed that she had succumbed to Balamuthia mandrillaris, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is the least-known of three types of amoebas that have been identified as causing fatal brain infections. Unlike others, it moves more slowly and can take weeks or months to cause death.
Although rare, with 200 cases worldwide, it could happen again, and doctors want the story to serve as a warning. Doctors and researchers who worked on the case, including Cobbs, published a case study in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. It explains that the patient made a fatal mistake.
She used tap water filtered through a store-bought filter in the Neti Pot, which doctors believe led to her infection and death. While people cannot be infected by swallowing water contaminated with the amoebas, when it is shot far up into the nasal cavity toward the olfactory nerves during a sinus rinse, it’s a different story.
Once in the nose, organisms can travel to the brain, causing the brain-eating infection granulomatous amoebic encephalitis (GAE). In 2011, a 51-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man died in Louisianna from similar infections from other amoebas, prompting Louisianna’s state health authority to issue a Neti Pot warning.
The woman’s infection was only the second ever reported in Seattle, but 109 cases were reported in America between 1974 and 2016, according to a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases. Ninety percent of those cases were fatal, likely because the Balamuthia mandrillaris infection is hard to diagnose. This also means it’s possible that many other such infections have been missed.
Doctors warn that people who develop a nasal rash after using non-sterile water may be at high risk for developing amoeba infections. But, of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, always use distilled or sterile water or saline for nasal irrigation.
Doctors believe this simple precaution can nearly eliminate any risk of infection, allowing patients to continue using Neti Pots without fear. Neti Pots are incredibly helpful devices that can bring much-needed relief to sinus infection suffers. However, one “shortcut” can turn the heavenly home remedy into a Neti Pot nightmare.
Never use water straight from the tap for nasal lavage. Instead, use distilled or sterile water, which can be bought at the grocery store, or boil tap water for 5-10 minutes, then let it cool. Something so simple can turn into a tragedy, so make sure your loved ones know the risk and take the appropriate precautions.