Woman Uses Neti Pot, Ends Up With Brain-Eating Amoeba

Kenny Tucker
December 9, 2018

A Seattle, Washington woman whose brain was partly a "ball of bloody mush" after rare brain-eating amoebas infected her likely contracted the organisms after she used a neti pot full of tap water to clear her sinuses, according to a report. But when Cobbs operated, he discovered something much more disturbing.

"There were these amoebas all over the place just eating brain cells", Cobbs tells the Seattle Times. When the doctors looked at these samples of the tissue under the microscope, they could see the amoebas.

According to the CDC, most brain infections from amoebas are associated with swimming in warm freshwater lakes and rivers. The cause: She used a neti pot filled with non-sterile water to treat a sinus infection.

"If you do use a neti pot, for instance, you should be very aware that it has to be absolute sterile water or sterile saline", said Dr. Cobb. Doctors believe an amoeba entered in through her upper nasal cavity and got into her bloodstream, eventually reaching her brain.

The amoebas can be found in fresh-water sources around Puget Sound but aren't present in city-treated water, Liz Coleman, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Public Health division of the state's Department of Health, told the paper. Globally, only 200 infections have ever been recorded, of which 70 occurred in the United States.

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Her case is reported this week in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. Some tap water contains low levels of organisms - such as bacteria and protozoa, including amoebas - that may be safe to swallow because stomach acid kills them.

Over the next several days, additional scans revealed that whatever was happening in her brain was getting worse.

Cope said all three amoeba types have similar rates of prevalence, but Balamuthia mandrillaris is the least-recognized among the medical community because it is rarely documented, providing limited opportunity for research. And it's hard to grow the amoeba in the lab, because it doesn't grow on agar, a commonly used cell-culturing medium used in labs.

Eventually she reportedly developed a rash on her nose and raw skin near her nostrils, which was misdiagnosed as rosacea, a skin condition. The study was authored by Cobbs and others who worked on the woman's case.

It is thought the amoebas are primarily soil-based, but the "exact environmental niche is really unknown", Cope said in an email. Although the woman did use a store-bought filter, it likely wasn't one approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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