Kendra Jackson spent about two-and-a-half years with a runny nose.
And not just a few drips, said the woman from Omaha, Neb. It was more than a cup a day.
“I didn’t have a life. I never left home without a box of Kleenex or a stack in my pocket or my purse. I never slept. Continuous migraines. I was always tired but I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
She went to many doctors and was told that it was allergies, though it never got better. “I started going back and forth to the doctor, and then finally when I went to the last doctor, I told her, ‘I’m not leaving your office until you figure out what’s wrong with me.’”
Doctors did find out. It wasn’t ordinary mucus leaking from her nose – it was brain fluid.
Specifically, cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain and spinal cord. “It protects it as we walk around and jostle our heads,” said Dr. Christie Barnes, a rhinologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who worked on Jackson’s case.
To find out what the problem was, doctors asked Jackson, 52, to collect some of the fluid and tested it to see if it contained beta-2 transferrin, a protein found in cerebrospinal fluid. Once they knew what it was, they had to act to solve the problem.
This condition, called a cerebrospinal fluid leak, isn’t just uncomfortable, it can also be dangerous. Although the body will regenerate the lost fluid, there are other concerns.
“It’s more that the nose and the sinuses are very bacteria-laden places. So the big risk for her is left untreated, she could suffer a pretty serious infection such as meningitis or even brain abscess,” said Barnes. The fluid, which is normally kept around the brain, can leak out if the patient suffers a trauma of some kind, like a head injury or certain surgeries around the nose, which creates a hole.
In Jackson’s case, she was in a car accident about five years ago and hit her head on the steering wheel. She said her runny nose began soon after and just got worse over time.
To treat Jackson, the medical team performed surgery, entering through her nose. They first opened up her sinuses to pinpoint the source of the problem. Once they found it, they plugged the hole using a tiny bit of fat pulled from just under her belly button. They then used some tissue from inside her nose to “seal the clean brain from the dirty sinuses to create that boundary there.”
After her surgery on April 23, Jackson is doing well, though her nose is a little sore. “I’m getting better. I’m just recovering, just relaxing.”
And her nose isn’t running anymore.
“No, thank you Jesus. No ma’am, it’s not. It’s not running at all.”
Barnes, who regularly performs sinus surgeries, said she sees patients with this condition roughly every two months. “It’s not terribly common,” she said, about five in 100,000 patients.
However, she thinks that people should still be aware that this might be a possibility if they have a runny nose that lasts a long time and doesn’t respond to any treatments.
It differs from allergies or colds in a few ways, she said. First, it usually only drips from one side of the nose. Also, “It’s not just a little bit of mucus that drips out. You’ll see more consistently with a CSF leak that it’s like a faucet.”
The nose will leak more when a patient bends over or strains themselves, she said, because of changes in the fluid pressure.
Also, there’s the taste.
“CSF or brain fluid actually has a salty taste to it. So people will tell you, ‘I’ve got this salty drainage or this salty taste in the back of my throat all the time because of this.’ Which is not usually the case with mucus or snot.”
Jackson hopes that her story can help others. “I just hope that my story reaches someone who is going through the same thing, a similar thing that I was going through and they can catch it in time, way quicker than they did with me.”
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