A college rower at Kansas State University died after experiencing symptoms that she thought were caused by tonsillitis but turned out to be Lemierre syndrome, a rare bacterial infection. The student, Samantha Scott, died on October 27, not long after seeking medical attention.
Two weeks ago, Scott, 23, started feeling pain and swelling in her throat, People reports. She brushed off her symptoms but eventually went to the hospital when they got worse.
She was diagnosed with Lemierre syndrome, a rare infection that starts with a sore throat and fever and causes swelling and infection that can move throughout someone’s body. Scott died just days after she was diagnosed.
“I don’t think I could say a negative thing about her,” Kennidi Cobbley, her lifelong friend who set up a GoFundMe to help Scott’s family with funeral expenses, tells SELF. “She was honestly one of the best people I know.” Cobbley calls Scott’s death “devastating,” adding, “I just talked to her on Tuesday and it seemed like she was doing better.”
Cobbley is hoping to help Scott’s family raise enough money to help cover medical bills and funeral expenses. Any leftover funds will go toward creating a scholarship in Scott’s name.
Lemierre syndrome is a severe infection usually caused by a specific type of bacteria.
The bacteria Fusobacterium necrophorum is at the root of the majority of these cases, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD), but the infection has been reported with other bacteria as well. The infection begins in the throat and spreads through the lymphatic vessels, thin tubes structured like blood vessels that carry white blood cells and lymphatic fluid throughout the body.
Symptoms usually include a sore throat and fever, followed by swelling of the internal jugular veins (which run along either side of the neck), according to GARD. From there, someone with this infection might develop a blood clot in their jugular vein. Then, if the condition is left untreated, pus-containing tissue moves from the throat to different organs, usually the lungs.
Experts don’t really know why some people develop Lemierre syndrome, especially because totally healthy people may also have Fusobacterium necrophorum without any issues. Some scientists think that Lemierre syndrome may develop when bacteria invades a person’s mucosa, which is the membrane that lines various parts of the body, GARD says. Having viral or bacterial pharyngitis or the Epstein-Barr virus may also increase a person’s risk.
The symptoms of Lemierre syndrome usually feel pretty different from a "regular" sore throat.
Although your sore throat may start out feeling relatively mild, it quickly progresses into something more severe. “You just start feeling poorly all over,” William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells SELF. “You just feel sick and all of a sudden realize that this is not just a simple sore throat.”
For instance, when your tonsils swell, you might find it difficult to swallow, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF. It might also make it difficult to breathe, Dr. Schaffner adds, which is definitely worrying.
If the infection makes its way into your bloodstream, it's possible to develop sepsis, a severe reaction to infection, Dr. Schaffner says. That comes with symptoms that include a fever, high heart rate, and difficulty breathing on top of the initial infection. From there, sepsis can progress to organ failure and septic shock. “It’s not something that happens immediately, but can get progressively worse over a few days,” he explains.
Given that Lemierre syndrome is so rare, a proper diagnosis requires doctors who know about the syndrome and have a healthy dose of suspicion, Dr. Schaffner says. Diagnosis usually involves blood tests and imaging of the neck (such as a CT scan or ultrasound) to look for the presence of swelling or a blood clot in the jugular vein, which often comes with Lemierre syndrome, GARD says.
Lemierre syndrome is often treatable if it’s caught in time.
Patients will usually be given IV antibiotics to try to clear up the infection, GARD says. “Most people don’t die from this, at least in the U.S., but they can get pretty sick,” Dr. Adalja says. However, he adds, the risk of serious complications increases the longer someone waits to seek medical care.
Again, this is rare, and it’s unlikely that your next sore throat will be due to Lemierre syndrome. “Even infectious disease doctors may only see one or two in our professional lifetimes,” Dr. Schaffner says. “Very few people who have sore throats develop complications like this.”
However, if you have a sore throat that seems to be getting worse, or if you’re having trouble swallowing or breathing, those are possible signs that you may be dealing with something more serious than a common cold or flu, so it's crucial to get medical attention.