What is a brain abscess?

Having a brain abscess is a life-threatening condition caused by a bacterial or fungal infection. An accumulation of dead and infected cells and pus causes tissue to form around it, becoming a "mass" or abscess. In many cases the reason for the abscess is undetermined, but it can occur as a result of a wound or infection in your head or elsewhere in the body, such as in the heart or lungs, or even an abscessed tooth or sinus infection.

People with weakened immune systems due to HIV/AIDS or cancer, for example, are more susceptible to getting an infection that causes a brain abscess.

Symptoms of a brain abscess

If you are living with a chronic illness or disease, or a compromised immune system, you should report any unusual symptoms to your doctor. Your doctor can help you understand your particular risk for infection and what you need to be aware of. In otherwise healthy people, however, the symptoms of brain abscess may be similar to other more common conditions. You may experience chills, fever, and vomiting, for example, or you may have more extreme changes in:

  • Vision
  • Speech
  • Bodily function and sensation

Some people also experience confusion and irritability due to the effects of the infection on the brain.

Diagnosis and testing for a brain abscess

To diagnose your condition, your doctor may order neurological testing along with blood tests, X-ray, CT scan, electroencephalogram (EEG), MRI, and/or needle biopsy.

Brain abscess treatment options

Depending on the findings of the tests and whether the abscess is caused by bacterial or fungal infection, treatment may include antibiotics or antifungal medication. If the abscess is deep or there is dangerous swelling and pressure on the brain, surgery may be required.

A brain abscess is always a medical emergency and must be treated early to avoid long-term neurological effects, brain damage, or death.

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