The Weirdest Medical Cases of 2023

The Weirdest Medical Cases of 2023

It’s once again time to crane our heads sideways in bafflement at all the strange ways people got sick or hurt this year.

Young doctors are taught the lesson that when they hear hoofbeats, they should first assume it’s a horse, not a zebra—a reminder that most illnesses can be explained by the mundane. But sometimes zebras do show up in an emergency room or outpatient office, and when they do, doctors (and journalists) love to write about them. Here are some of the weirdest cases and other freak occurrences to have popped up in the medical literature and media this year.

Death via Brain Amoeba

Image: nikkytok (Shutterstock)

In February, the Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County reported that an unnamed man had been killed by a brain-eating infection of the amoeba Naegleria fowleri.

Human brain infections of N. fowleri are unusual enough by their rarity alone. The amoeba naturally lives in freshwater and normally only gobbles down bacteria. Simply swallowing the amoeba by ingesting contaminated water won’t make you sick—it has to directly reach your brain, which can happen when water goes up the nose. Since the discovery of the amoeba in the 1960s, there have only been around 150 such cases documented in the U.S. Sadly, once it’s inside the brain, the infection is nearly always lethal.

This case was even stranger than most, though. The man was believed to have contracted it by rinsing his sinuses with unboiled tap water, the first known instance of this happening in Florida (it’s usually caught from swimming). And it’s thought to be the first case in the U.S. documented in the winter, which is typically when the amoeba goes dormant.

The Rose-Killing Fungus That Jumped into Humans

Silver leaf fungus on a dead tree stump in the UK.

Here’s a story that may make you think of The Last of Us. In March, doctors in India reported the first known case of someone infected by the rose-killing fungus Chondrostereum purpureum.

Microbes that normally infect other living things do occasionally jump the species barrier and make humans sick. But this jump usually occurs from another animal, not from plants to humans. It’s even weirder that it happened with a fungus, since our bodies are too warm for most fungi to survive and thrive in.

C. purpureum causes an often-fatal disease in plants called silver leaf. But the person in this case only experienced a mild throat infection and recovered after two months of antifungal medication. The truly scary possibility, however, is that this won’t be the last plant germ to leap to humans, and we might not get so lucky next time.

Wild Iguana Ruins Little Girl’s Vacation, Gives Her Rare Bacterial Infection

A wild green iguana in Costa Rica.

It’s a tale as old as time: a little girl sits down to eat her cake while on vacation in Costa Rica, gets her dessert stolen by a wild iguana that also bites her hand, and then develops a rare bacterial infection.

This particular case of insult-to-injury was reported by Stanford doctors in April. Though the girl had her hand disinfected and was given antibiotics soon after the incident, the iguana’s bite left a bump that refused to go away, and it only grew bigger and more painful over time. By the time she saw the doctors five months later, they had to remove a nearly 1-inch mass of pus from her hand. They then confirmed she had caught the bacteria Mycobacterium marinum.

Cases of M. marinum in humans have been reported before, but it’s usually caught from exposure to infected fish. As far as the report authors know, this is the first time someone is known to have caught it via iguana. Ruined vacation memories aside, the girl’s infection was successfully treated.

Shrooms with a Little Color

Image: Moha El-Jaw (Shutterstock)

Not every weird medical case is gross or upsetting. Sometimes, it’s just nifty. In May, researchers reported on a man who experienced a sudden and sustained restoration of color vision after taking psilocybin-containing mushrooms.

The 35-year-old man had mild deuteranomalia, a type of red-green blindness. He was also a regular user of magic mushrooms and other psychedelics. He noticed he could sometimes see colors better after these sessions. He then started to document his improvement, and eventually told his colleagues about it, who ran some of their own tests.

The man’s improvement on color blindness tests was modest, and though it seemed to last for several weeks to months, it eventually faded away once he stopped taking mushrooms. But the report authors say more research should be done to confirm the man’s experiences and better understand this phenomenon.

A Tongue with Extra Fuzz

Unlike most cases, the man’s hairy tongue turned an odd shade of green.

Talk about a hairy situation. In July, doctors published a case—complete with horrifying photos—of a man who developed an incredibly fuzzy and puke-green colored tongue.

Unsettling as it might look, this medical condition—aptly called hairy tongue—is usually temporary and not a sign of more serious problems. The man’s grinch-like discoloration was unusual, though, since most cases tend to feature a brown or black tongue. He was advised to gently scrub his tongue with a toothbrush four times a day and to consider quitting smoking (a known risk factor). The man remained a smoker, but his tongue did eventually return to normal within a few months.

New Brainworm Just Dropped

The woman’s brain scan, along with the worm discovered inside her lesion.

Sometimes knowledge is an awful gift. Case in point: In September, researchers published their discovery of a new species of roundworm that can infest our brains—one originating from Australia, of course.

What’s worse, the authors made the find by literally pulling a live, 3-inch-long larval worm from a woman’s brain during surgery in June 2022. The 64-year-old woman may have contracted the infection sometime in 2021, when she first began to experience pneumonia and other illnesses that didn’t respond to treatment. The team eventually identified the brain invader as a member of Ophidascaris robertsi, a roundworm that’s normally a parasite of carpet pythons, snakes found throughout Australia.

Brainworm infections are rare, but it’s likely that there are still other unknown wriggly species out there perfectly capable of lodging themselves inside our noggins under the right conditions. Joy.

Deadly Food

Image: Brent Hofacker (Shutterstock)

A food marketing stunt intended to go viral may have led to a Massachusetts teen boy’s tragic death in early September. The family of 14-year-old Harris Wolobah alleges that he was killed by eating a brand of Paqui chip known as the “One Chip Challenge”—a chip dusted with the Carolina Reaper and the Naga Viper peppers, some of the spiciest peppers on record.

The chip’s makers did include a warning on the product recommending that people who are pregnant, allergic, or sensitive to spicy products should avoid eating the chip. The chip is also explicitly marketed to be for adults only. But until Wolobah’s death, it could readily be found on store shelves. There had been prior reports of children getting hurt from taking part in the chip challenge. As of mid-December, state medical examiners have reportedly still not determined Wolobah’s cause of death.

In other deadly food news this year, Panera is currently facing two lawsuits from families who claim their loved ones were killed by drinking the company’s highly caffeinated “Charged Lemonade” energy drink. Both reportedly had cardiovascular conditions that may have increased their risk of death.

A New Cat, With a Side of Diarrhea

Image: Nils Jacobi (Shutterstock)

Getting a new cat, as many an owner will attest to, can sometimes be an ordeal. But one woman’s adoption story might have been a lot more traumatic than most. In October, doctors reported on a case of recurrent Clostridioides difficile—a hardy, diarrhea-causing infection—that might have originated from the woman’s cat.

The woman began to experience symptoms a month after adopting a stray cat. After months of only partially successful treatment and repeated bouts of diarrhea, the woman asked her doctors if her cat could have possibly infected her. She decided to have her veterinarian test the cat for C. diff, which came back positive. Both she and the cat then got a round of treatment, and only then did her dreadful symptoms finally come to an end.

The authors note that they only have circumstantial evidence for tying the cat to the woman’s infection. But if it did happen, it would be the first documented case of cat-to-human transmission of C. diff.

And let’s face facts: If any animal would know how to hide its tracks well enough to avoid smoking gun evidence of a medical crime, it would be a cat. This isn’t even the only suspected incident of a stray cat giving a human a nasty and unusual infection reported by doctors this year.

Spiders Crawling Into Places They Shouldn’t

The spider and its molted exoskeleton found inside the woman’s ear.

It wouldn’t be October without a real-life tale of body horror.

This year, doctors in Taiwan reported finding a spider inside a woman’s ear—one that made itself cozy long enough to molt. The woman likely played roommate to the wayward arachnid for at least four days before she saw a doctor, all the while being bombarded with sounds of “incessant beating, clicking, and rustling” that kept her up at night. Thankfully, the spider was removed easily enough with a little suction, and the woman “went home happily.”

But at least one spider was exonerated this year. A UK man’s story of having his big toe infested with spider eggs while on vacation—reported earlier this November—is likely not plausible, according to spider experts.

MRI Shoots Woman

Image: Roman Zaiets (Shutterstock)

Not one but two stories this year illustrate the importance of being honest with your healthcare providers, especially before you enter an MRI room.

In July, the Food and Drug Administration received an adverse event report heavy on schadenfreude. In late June, a 57-year-old woman was about to enter a MRI machine when the handgun she had concealed was triggered by the machine’s powerful magnet and fired off a single round, straight into and through her right buttock.

The woman miraculously escaped serious injury, but a Brazilian man who experienced the same thing in January wasn’t so lucky. While assisting his mother with an MRI, his gun went off and fired into his stomach. He was hospitalized and ultimately succumbed to his injuries.

It’s well known that metal is a huge safety hazard around MRI machines, and people are routinely asked about and told not to bring them inside the room. In both cases, though, it appears the victims were dishonest about having firearms with them.

The Worst Sneeze Ever

Image: – Yuri A (Shutterstock)

If you’ve ever had the temptation to stifle a sneeze, this case should dissuade you. In December, doctors in the UK reported on a man who ripped a hole in his windpipe by trying to hold in sneezing.

The man likely had a tendency to sneeze a lot, since he had a history of hay fever. While driving his car one day, he made the unfortunate decision to plug his mouth and nose just as he was about to sneeze. It didn’t take long for him to regret that decision, as he immediately felt neck pain bad enough to warrant a visit to the ER. Once there, doctors confirmed that he had suffered a spontaneous tracheal perforation.

As far as the doctors know, this was the first documented case of someone tearing their windpipe by holding in a sneeze. But other people have fractured ribs, burst eardrums, and even ruptured blood vessels in the brain from trying to keep their sneezes in—which is exactly why doctors recommend not ever trying to do so.

Fortunately, the man’s injury was relatively mild and he recovered completely in a month’s time.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

It’s the most popular NBN speed in Australia for a reason. Here are the cheapest plans available.

At Gizmodo, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.