Woman's 'allergies' were really brain fluid leak

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

TUCSON, Ariz. -- It is a story almost too strange to believe. Despite doctor after doctor telling her she was suffering from allergies, a Tucson woman says she knew there was something else behind her constantly runny nose. And she was right.
While it could have been fatal, Aundrea Aragon said there was really only one word describe it.

“It is just gross,” she laughed while telling us about the liquid that would pour out of her nose, almost non-stop, for months. 
It started with a sinus infection that led her to seek treatment at a local clinic.

“So, I told them about it and said this was happening,” Aragon explained. “ And she said, 'Well it is really bad allergy season. So it is probably just allergies.'”

Although antibiotics cleared up the infection, Aragon said the liquid kept on flowing.

“I couldn't clean. I couldn't do anything because as soon as I bent over it would pour out of my nose," she said. "At night I would wake up choking on the fluid and since I was basically swallowing it as well, my chest was aggravated.“

Increasingly frustrated and worried, she went to urgent care, and was again told it was allergies.

“And I said, 'I have had allergies, lived in Tucson, had allergies all my life. This is not allergies.'”

An ear nose and throat doctor said it might be an allergic reaction and gave her nose drops.

When that didn't work, she went to another urgent care doctor. This took a closer look at how much fluid was coming out. Aragon, describes that visit like this,
“So, he gave me some tissue and I bent over and it all poured out," she said, describing the visit.  "He was trying to remain pretty calm about it but I could tell he was alarmed.”

He sent her to a specialist -- Dr. Alexander Chiu of the University or Arizona Medical Center -- who finally diagnosed the problem. Aragon had a CSF leak. What was coming out of her nose was cerebral spinal fluid, a clear fluid that cushions and protects the brain and spine.

“It is brain fluid," Chiu explained. "It is the fluid that circulates all throughout your brain. It is made by your brain. And it is definitely brain fluid.”

Chiu took over Aragon's care. He said she had a puncture in the lining of her brain and two very small cracks in her skull bone.

“But big enough where fluid can come out of the brain and into the sinus itself,” Chiu said.

Interestingly enough, the body continuously makes more fluid, so losing it wasn't the biggest problem. The real risk, Chiu said, is an infection.

“You basically have a connection between a very clean spot on your body, your brain, with a very, very dirt spot on your body, which is your nose and your sinuses," he said.

Those infections can be fatal, which is why surgery was scheduled for Aragon.

She remembered everyone around her being very common about the imminent surgery and asked if it was an outpatient procedure.

"He said, 'no, you are having brain surgery,'" she recalled.

Chiu says in the past surgeons actually would open the skull to repair such leaks and then “lift up your brain and actually patch the area under your brain.”

But he and his UA colleagues are leaders in endoscopic repairs, going through the nose and using the patient’s own tissue to create a patch. Scar tissue creates a permanent seal.

Chiu explains the procedure


Thanks to Chiu, Aragon is now back to her schedule as busy mom -- leak- free and ready to spread the word about her experience.

 “[I]f I can help one person to not have to endure that long and be able to bring this awareness to more doctors, more people, why not?" she said.

Aragon's condition is more common than you might think. Chiu says he can actually treat up 30 such cases a year, but usually the leaks are caused by some kind of trauma. He still doesn't what caused Aragon's leak.

Chiu said that while such surgery is becoming routine, it is still risky.

The UA Medical Center also provided this number for appointments if someone you know has symptoms like Aragon's that cannot be explained. To make an appointment, 520-694-1000