13-year-old dies when sinus infection spreads to his brain — how common is this?

Abby Haglage

News that a 13-year-old boy in Michigan succumbed to complications from a sinus infection that spread to his brain have rattled the internet. It’s a shocking and tragic story of an otherwise healthy teen whose life was taken too soon. But it’s also an alarming revelation for the 29.4 million Americans who (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have faced sinus infections in the past.

Photo: GoFundMe
Photo: GoFundMe

A sinus infection — or sinusitis — is a common condition in which viruses or bacteria infect the sinuses, causing congestion, fatigue, fever, and pain in areas like the cheeks and behind the eyes. Even with available treatment like antibiotics, sinusitis remains a solid fixture in the winter months. According to the American Academy of Head and Neck Surgery, one in eight adults come down with it every year. Brain complications, unbeknownst to many, can result. Although that’s extremely rare, an expert from the Cleveland Clinic, a non-profit academic medical center, says it’s important to understand the risks.

In this particular case, the tragedy centers around Marquel Brumley, a young teen in Flint, Mich., who complained of cold-like symptoms a few weeks ago. According to Brumley’s family, who set up a GoFundMe after the sinus infection reached his brain, he was initially diagnosed with a sinus infection and sent home. Doctors, they report, instructed Brumley’s aunt to “let it run its course.”

That proved to be dangerous advice. Over the next few weeks, Brumley apparently began complaining of severe migraines, which continued to get worse. By the time he was taken into the hospital, doctors diagnosed a brain infection. Apparently Brumley was far along in the infection, and blood clots had reportedly formed in his brain, leading to a series of debilitating strokes.

Ultimately, on Sunday, Brumley lost the battle and passed away. In the aftermath, his GoFundMe page — initially aimed at helping raise the funds to save his life — was converted into a memorial. “The love and support everyone has shown is overwhelming and so appreciated,” his relative Peggy Gilbert wrote on the page. “Marquel was a very kind and loving person that will be missed terribly. The family is taking comfort in know he saved 7 lives with the gift of his organs.”

The story is any parent’s worst nightmare, but it’s not necessarily one that should keep you up at night. Dr. Raj Sindwani, a rhinologist at the Cleveland Clinic who has far-reaching expertise on sinus infections, says situations like this are uncommon. “It’s exceedingly rare for an otherwise healthy young person without any underlying medical problems or immunodeficiencies to actually die from sinusitis,” Sindwani tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “However, untreated — or unrecognized — complications can have major consequences, including eye infection and brain infection.”

Although it’s highly unusual for sinusitis to spur an infection in the brain, Sindwani points out that Brumley’s demographic — young adolescent males — are the most in danger. “Young adolescent males do have a higher risk of frontal sinus problems spreading to the brain, which [scientists] think is related to the anatomic configuration,” Sindwani says. “It’s still crazy rare, especially in the post-antibiotic era.”

MRI scan of the human sinus with nasal passages. (Photo: Getty Images)
MRI scan of the human sinus with nasal passages. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sindwani says that researchers have studied the prevalence of this development in young males and found that the back wall of their frontal sinus contains veins that — for an unknown reason — are “more permissible” to letting infection spread to the brain. Once a male brain has fully developed, this doesn’t seem to be the case. “As they grow older, these veins become less permissible,” Sindwani says.

But even for the general population, it’s important to look out for signs that an infection is spreading. Among these: worsening symptoms, severe headaches, eye swelling, and fever. Overall, it’s the proximity to the eyes and brain that Sindwani says make the sinus infection potentially dangerous. “The sinuses, from an anatomy standpoint, occupy important geography,” he says. “They’re right under the brain, so when you have infection that’s not treated it can spread.”

Sindwani hopes that Brumley’s tragic story won’t send people into a tailspin of concern, but rather provoke heightened awareness about the risks of sinusitis. “The takeaway is don’t panic — these are weird, rare things. Otherwise healthy people will fight off viral infections by themselves. The body is a strong thing,” he says. “But when we do think they’re bacterial, antibiotics can help — and will.”

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