Woman's 'Allergies' Were Actually Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak

Updated | When Kendra Jackson complained to doctors of an unusually runny nose, headaches and trouble getting to sleep, they put her symptoms down to an allergy. But years later, specialists confirmed her “waterfall” nose was in fact caused by fluid leaking out of her brain. 

Jackson, from Omaha, Nebraska, first noticed the symptoms following a car accident in 2013, when she hit her head on the dashboard.  

“[The running was] like a waterfall, continuously, and then it would run to the back of my throat,” she told local news station KETV.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she continued. “I was like a zombie.”

kelly-sikkema-516850-unsplash Kendra Jackson underwent surgery after she was diagnosed with a cerebrospinal fluid leak. Unsplash /Kelly Sikkema

After years of struggling, she visited the ear, nose and throat clinic at Nebraska Medicine hospital. Doctors there diagnosed her with a cerebrospinal fluid leak (CSF). Jackson was found to be losing, on average, half a pint of brain fluid every day, she told KETV.

Cerebrospinal fluid circulates through the brain's ventricles and around the spinal cord. A leak can happen when the watery liquid seeps through a layer in the brain called the dura, the skull itself or out through the nose or ear, according to literature from Johns Hopkins University.

“This fluid serves the function of providing mechanical protection of the brain through cushioning or buffering, as well as playing a role in its immunologic protection,” Dr. Brad Marple, chair of otolaryngology at the University of Texas Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, told Newsweek.

“Normally, it is contained within the water-tight confines of the skull, but occasionally an area of disruption can develop between the intracranial cavity and air-filled spaces within the skull. The sinuses are examples of air-filled spaces within the skull that share a thin common wall with the intracranial cavity and serve as a common route for a CSF leak. Under these circumstances, CSF can drip from the nose and be mistaken for a runny nose.” 

Head injuries or damage caused by brain or sinus surgery can cause the fluid to leak. Symptoms include headaches, a runny nose, visual disturbances, tinnitus and a potentially deadly bout of meningitis. These symptoms get markedly worse when the person sits or stands, according to the CSF Leak Association.

Each year, at least five in 100,000 people are affected by a spontaneous CSF leak worldwide, according to research cited by the CSF Leak Association. The condition is not regarded as rare, but patients are often misdiagnosed with common headache disorders, such as migraine or sinusitis.

CSF will often heal on its own. However, due to the risk of meningitis, more severe cases of the condition can be treated with endonasal endoscopic surgery—where medics operate on a patient using a camera and tools sent through the nose.

In Jackson’s case, doctors used her fatty tissue to plug the leak. She is now recovering following surgery earlier this year. 

“I don’t have to carry around the tissue anymore, and I’m getting some sleep,” she told KETV.

This article has been updated to include background information and comment from Dr. Brad Marple.

Join the Discussion