A woman who met a tragic fate after routinely rinsing out her sinuses is thought to have died because she put tap water in her neti pot. That tap water was filled with tiny amoebas that ate away at her brain cells.
The 69-year-old Seattle woman stumped doctors earlier this year, when she was admitted to hospital after suffering a seizure. After examining a CT scan taken of her brain, physicians thought she had a tumor. She entered surgery the next day.
However, an examination of tissue taken from her brain during surgery showed that her problem wasn’t a tumor at all. It was microscopic amoebas that were feasting on her brain.
“There were these amoebae 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 amoebae,” Dr. Charles Cobbs, a neurosurgeon at Swedish Medical Center, told the Seattle Times.
Despite the surgeons’ best efforts, the woman died a month later. Now a case study recently published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases has shed light on how the amoeba entered her brain. The study was authored by Cobbs and others who worked on the woman’s case.
The answer lies in a common instrument known as a neti pot, a teapot-shaped product used to rinse out the sinuses and nasal cavity. It’s a simple contraption that can be purchased at major retailers across the US.
However, using tap water with a neti pot isn’t safe, according to the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Instead, distilled or sterile water should be used, or boiled and cooled water.
It is also acceptable to use a filter specifically designed to trap potentially infectious organisms. Although the woman did use a store-bought filter, it likely wasn’t one approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As such, when the 69-year-old shot the tap water up her nasal cavity, she essentially injected the brain-eating infection known as granulomatous amoebic encephalitis (GAE).
But even though the woman used tap water, the odds were in her favor that she would have been fine. In fact, her case of GAE is the first to be linked to the washing of the nasal cavity, according to Keenan Piper, a member of the Swedish team that produced the study.
As if that wasn’t bad enough luck, the woman also died from the type of amoeba that is least-known by doctors – Balamuthia mandrillaris. It moves slowly and can take weeks or months to cause death. That aligns with what the victim experienced, as her first likely symptom was a red sore on her nose that doctors kept misdiagnosing as the common skin condition rosacea.
“It’s such an incredibly uncommon disease it was not on anyone’s radar that this initial nose sore would be related to her brain,” Piper said.
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