A 69-year-old Seattle woman died in hospital after doctors discovered she had contracted brain-eating amoebas from using tap water in her neti pot.
As reported by the Seattle Times, a woman was admitted to a local hospital’s emergency department after suffering a seizure in January. There, doctors took a CT scan of her brain and discovered what they believed was a tumour.
But after performing brain surgery and taking a tissue sample, they realized she actually had a rare amoeba called Balamuthia mandrillaris.
“When I operated on this lady, a section of her brain about the size of a golf ball was bloody mush,” Dr. Charles Cobbs, a neurosurgeon at Swedish Medical Center, where the woman was treated, told the 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.”
The woman died a month later, and according to a study published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, doctors believe she became infected when she used Brita-filtered tap water in her neti pot — a teapot-like vessel used to flush out nasal passages — instead of saline or sterile water to treat a sinus infection.
Health officials suggest using only distilled, sterile or previously boiled water to rinse sinuses. Tap water can contain tiny organisms that are safe to drink but could survive in nasal passages.
The Times reported that the woman shot the contaminated water far up her nasal cavity toward olfactory nerves in the upper part of her nasal cavity, causing the brain-eating infection.
“After a month of using non-sterile water for nasal lavage without success, she developed a quarter-sized red raised rash on the right side of the bridge of her nose and raw red skin at the nasal opening, which was thought to be rosacea,” the report states.
“Then, about one year after the initial development of the nasal rash, the patient was seen at an outside hospital due to a left upper extremity focal seizure.”
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The woman’s brain infection went undiagnosed for so long because the type of amoeba she had was so uncommon and also moves very slowly, the Times stated.
In order to prevent any risk of infection, people should always read the instructions on a neti pot and only use saline or sterile water.
According to Dr. Zara Patel, a professor of otolaryngology at Stanford University, when people use contaminated water to rinse their nose and sinuses, they can be at risk for aggressive infections.
“Most of the cases reported in the United States where this happen are from people using shallow well water or other sources that are known to be at higher risk of contamination,” she told Global News.
“However, unfortunately it is possible for these organisms to get into tap water as well at times, and that’s why I do always counsel my patients to use distilled water when rinsing. Often patients will think that using bottled water is fine and assume it is distilled, it that is actually not the case.”
Even though such infections are very rare, there were three similar U.S. cases from 2008 to 2017.
Patel stressed that rinsing the sinuses with salt water is an extremely safe and effective method of keeping the sinuses clear, “as long as patients know to use distilled water when they are doing it.”
—With files from the Associated Press