Most of us are familiar with the neti pot or another similar method of clearing out your sinuses with water. While this is a very common method for sinus relief and typically safe, there was recent proof that a simple mistake during its use could prove fatal.
A 69-year-old woman died following an infection from a very rare amoeba that ate her brain.
The woman’s story began about a year ago when she was suffering from a chronic sinus infection.
Her doctor suggested that she use saline irrigation to clear out her sinuses. The International Journal of Infectious Diseases reports that the woman opted to use tap water that she then filtered via her Brita water purifier.
The woman continued to irrigate her sinuses for a month using filtered tap water. At this point, she developed a rash by her nose that was about the size of a quarter.
Her doctors did not make the connection and thought the rash was rosacea.
As such, they prescribed her ointment to treat rosacea, but it had no effect. This led to several visits to a dermatologist. The woman even had biopsies of the rash without any definitive diagnosis.
The rash stuck around for a year, at which point the woman suffered from a seizure.
She was admitted to the hospital, where the doctors gave her a CT scan. This scan finally gave doctors some answers — there was a lesion on the woman’s brain that was 1.5 centimeters long. Doctors originally thought it was a tumor, although they noted that it had some “unusual characteristics.”
The doctors took a biopsy of the lesion, sending samples for testing at Johns Hopkins University. Two weeks following her seizure, the woman went back to the hospital due to an “altered mental status” and limb weakness.
At this point, doctors performed another CT scan and discovered the lesion had grown.
The neuropathologist from Johns Hopkins suggested the possibility of an amoebic infection. This led to the doctors performing surgery on the woman’s brain.
That surgery led to the discovery of severe necrosis, meaning tissue and cell death. This had been going on for more than a year as the amoeba slowly ate the woman’s brain. One of the neurosurgeons who treated the woman said a golf-ball-sized section of her brain was “bloody mush” from the amoeba eating the brain cells.
As soon as they had a diagnosis, doctors took action, but it was too late.
The woman went on an aggressive course of anti-amoebic drugs. However, her condition continued to worsen. Eventually, her family made the tough decision to stop life support.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s later tests revealed that the amoeba responsible for the woman’s death was Balamuthia mandrillaris, which is usually found in water and soil. This woman’s case was incredibly rare, although the amoeba is known to rarely cause granulomatous amoebic encephalitis, a severe infection in the spinal cord and brain.
Unfortunately for this woman, neti pots and similar methods of nasal irrigation are not safe to use with filtered tap water.
The CDC suggests using boiled or distilled water instead. If you opt for boiled water, it should have boiled for a full minute then cooled (or at least three minutes if you are above 6,500 feet).
If you cannot access distilled, sterile, or boiled water, the CDC suggests using a filter, but it must be one that removes common germs. Generally, a label should say “NSF 53,” “NSF 58,” “cyst removal,” or “cyst reduction.” Any of those labels indicate the filter can remove Naegleria, one of the concerning germs. You should use disinfected water only if none of the above options are possible.
Just because water is safe to drink, that does not mean that it’s safe to put in your nasal cavity because the organisms will have different access.
This woman’s death was not an isolated case, as incidents like this occur every few years.
Officials found at least two deaths due to using neti pots with tap water in 2011. In both of those cases, the death was also from a brain-eating amoeba. There was another similar case in Louisiana in 2013.
The bottom line is that neti pots are safe to use – as long as you use the CDC-recommended water.
Learn more in the video below.
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