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Brain Abscess Fast Facts

Brain abscesses are very rare: less than 20,000 US cases are reported yearly. A brain abscess is often the result of an infection in the head or body that spreads to the brain. Prompt treatment of a brain abscess is essential to prevent long-term damage or fatal consequences.

Without treatment, a brain abscess can lead to long-term neurological problems or even death.

Having a compromised immune system can put you at risk of developing a brain abscess. People with HIV/AIDS or other conditions that affect the immune system, as well as those using immune-suppressant drugs, are at increased risk.

Prompt treatment of a brain abscess is essential to prevent long-term damage or fatal consequences.

What is a Brain Abscess?

A brain abscess, sometimes also called a cerebral abscess, is an infection in the brain usually caused by bacteria or other microorganisms. The infection creates a pocket within the brain tissue that’s filled with bacteria, white blood cells from the patient’s immune system, pus, and fluid. As the pocket of infection grows, it can put pressure on sensitive brain tissue and cause damage. It can also block blood flow to other parts of the brain, causing even more widespread damage. In the worst cases, the condition can be fatal.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a brain abscess include:

  • Dull, Achy, Persistent Headache
  • Fever and/or chills
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness, fatigue, or loss of consciousness
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Neck stiffness
  • Weakness on one side of the body
  • Speech difficulties
  • Vision difficulties
  • Movement difficulties
  • Changes in personality

Most often, the symptoms develop within days or weeks as the abscess grows, but sometimes the symptoms aren’t noticeable until the abscess is well advanced. Some symptoms such as fever and chills may occur early in the course of an infection, even before an abscess begins putting pressure on the brain tissue.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

What Causes A Brain Abscess?

A brain abscess develops when bacteria, fungi, or other microorganisms invade brain tissue and the area of infection is contained by surrounding tissue. This causes an expanding capsule of pus and fluid to put pressure on healthy tissue. Sometimes the infection spreads from an area of infection elsewhere; common origin points include sinus infections, ear infections, dental infections, and endocarditis (an infection of the lining of the heart).

A head injury that penetrates the skull can result in an infection in the brain. An infection leading to an abscess can also occur as a result of invasive neurosurgery.

The type of bacteria (or other microorganisms) that causes a brain abscess can vary depending on the source of the original infection:

  • Staphylococci (staph) infections are often associated with head injuries, endocarditis, or infections arising after surgeries.
  • Enterobacteriaceae are often associated with ear infections, and the bacteria may migrate to the brain if the infection is left untreated.
  • A protozoa called toxoplasma gondii is common in patients with HIV/AIDS. The organism is a common culprit in brain abscesses.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

Is A Brain Abscess Hereditary?

The most common causes of infections that lead to brain abscesses come from external environmental sources, and family history plays no part in the development of an abscess. However, certain inherited conditions may make an infection more likely and put a patient at increased risk of a brain abscess.

For example, an inherited condition called hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT)–also called Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome–causes abnormal blood-vessel formation in the skin, mucous membranes, and internal organs. When this condition causes blood-vessel abnormalities in the lungs, patients are about 400 times more likely to develop a brain abscess, as compared to the general population.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How Is A Brain Abscess Detected?

Early detection of a brain abscess is important because long-term damage is more likely to occur if treatment is delayed until symptoms are advanced. Unfortunately, early diagnosis of a brain abscess is difficult because the first symptoms are usually vague and may be caused by a wide variety of problems other than an abscess.

For more than three-quarters of brain abscess patients, the first sign is a dull headache. Sometimes the headache is confined to one side of the head, and it is often the only symptom that occurs during the early stages of the problem. As the abscess grows, the headache usually becomes more severe, and over-the-counter pain relievers usually don’t make the pain go away.

Another common early symptom of an abscess is a low-grade fever.

If the abscess is left untreated, more severe symptoms, such as vomiting, stiff neck, seizures, personality changes, and weakness on one side of the body may develop.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How Is A Brain Abscess Diagnosed?

Because the early symptoms of a brain abscess are typically so non-specific, doctors don’t often suspect an abscess until more pronounced and definitive symptoms begin to emerge. This can delay diagnosis by as much as two weeks from the onset of the initial symptoms.

When your doctor suspects a brain abscess may be present, he or she may follow a diagnostic procedure that includes:

  • Medical history questions. Your doctor will look for signs that you may be at increased risk for certain kinds of infections. The doctor will also look for evidence of a prior infection that could have migrated to your brain.
  • Blood tests. These laboratory tests will look for signs of infection in your bloodstream.
  • Imaging tests. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography (CT) scans can be used to produce an image of your brain. An abscess is likely to show up on these scans.
  • Testing of the abscess. Doctors may remove a sample of the abscess using a fine needle. Tests of this sample can identify the source of the infection and allow for more effective treatment.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How Is A Brain Abscess Treated?

Treatment of a brain abscess usually involves drugs aimed at eliminating the source of the infection and relieving the pressure caused by the growing abscess.

  • Antibiotics such as cefotaxime, ceftriaxone, or metronidazole are often used to treat bacterial infections.
  • Vancomycin is often used to treat staph infections.
  • Corticosteroids are sometimes used to reduce inflammation and swelling caused by the abscess.
  • Anti-seizure medications may be used to treat or prevent seizures.

Unless the abscess is very small, the drainage of the abscess is usually necessary. This will require surgery, and the abscess is usually removed, if possible, during the surgery. If the abscess is not easily accessible, it may be drained using a needle guided by CT or MRI imaging.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How Does A Brain Abscess Progress?

Brain abscesses often grow very quickly, and they may become large enough to cause significant symptoms within two weeks. As the growing abscess exerted pressure on healthy brain tissue, symptoms will likely become more severe, and long-term damage is possible.

Treatment of brain abscesses is usually successful. However, long-term effects such as seizures, personality changes, or difficulties with a function elsewhere in the body are common even after successful treatment.

Left untreated, a brain abscess may be fatal.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How Is A Brain Abscess Prevented?

The most effective way to prevent a brain abscess is to prevent the infections that can lead to an abscess.

  • Practice good dental and oral hygiene. Brush and floss correctly and regularly, and see a dentist on a regular schedule.
  • If you have a sinus infection, use a decongestant to prevent the infection from becoming more severe.
  • See a doctor if a dental or sinus infection won’t go away. You may need prescription antibiotics to eliminate the infection.
  • If you have HIV, use antiviral medications to decrease your susceptibility to infections, and take the medications regularly as prescribed.
  • Go to your doctor if you have a headache that lasts (and/or gets worse) over the course of days or weeks.
  • Seek emergency treatment if you have seizures, vomiting, nausea, muscle weakness, or personality changes.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

Brain Abscess Caregiver Tips

In severe cases, brain abscesses can result in profound symptoms and personality changes that may prevent the sufferer from functioning effectively in his or her daily life. An abscess might occur, too, in conjunction with a brain injury or surgery that introduce their own demands and responsibilities on the part of caregivers.

If you are a caregiver for a loved one with a brain abscess, keep these tips in mind:

  • Attend doctor appointments with your loved one so that you can understand the diagnosis, the treatment plan, and the expectations for recovery.
  • During recovery, provide a comfortable space for the sufferer that’s free from noise, excessive stimulation, and stress.
  • Work with your loved one’s medical providers after treatment to learn how you can best support them as they recuperate. Understand the goals of any long-term therapies, and be realistic about expectations.
  • Call upon family and community to help out whenever possible. Don’t try to take sole responsibility for caregiving.
  • Take time for yourself whenever you can, and if you feel overwhelmed, seek out a support group, either locally or online, for caregivers of people with brain injuries.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

Brain Abscess Brain Science

Some recent research into the diagnosis and treatment of brain abscesses has focused on the treatment of unusual cases, as well as an assessment of current treatment.

  • One study examined cases of “cryptogenic brain abscess” in which the symptoms and the medical history of the patient didn’t fit the typical pattern associated with abscesses, and the source of the infection was unknown. Cryptogenic brain abscesses often elude diagnosis, and their prognosis is consequently poor. The goal of the research is to help practitioners to recognize unusual patterns of presentation to improve the outcome in these cases.
  • A recent survey looked at the advances made in the diagnosis and treatment of brain abscesses over the past several years with the goal of determining whether or not medical advances have had a positive impact on the treatment of the disease. The survey concluded that advances in imaging technologies, antibiotic treatments, and neurosurgery techniques have led to significantly improved prognosis for brain abscess patients.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

Brain Abscess Research

Scientists are working on several research projects to expand on what is known about Brain Abscesses. The research will improve knowledge about the factors that increase the risk for Brain Abscesses, as well as the causes, and best treatments and cures, and will aid people living with Brain Abscesses and their caregivers.

We are currently gathering the information required to support projects such as Cerebral Hemorrhage Risk in Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia (BVMN6203).

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

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