Jeannie Mai's Rare Throat Condition Explained

Jeannie Mai is probably best known for her work on The Real and a variety of high profile award shows. For a time she also made waves on Dancing with the Stars. But as BET reported last November, that all changed the day Mai woke up unable to breathe. A throat abscess made it impossible for her to get enough air, which meant Mai had to be hospitalized. And it meant the end of her time on Dancing with the Stars.

Doctors determined that Mai was suffering from epiglottitis, a relatively rare condition that often presents like a mild cold or throat issue before the symptoms escalate. Epiglottitis is a swelling of the epiglottis, which the Mayo Clinic describes as a sort of lid that opens and closes over your windpipe. When it swells, this lid feels like it is almost entirely closed and can reduce or stop a person's ability to breathe.

Prior to the advent of modern vaccines it was a relatively common and life-threatening condition that most often affected children. Although less common now, it is no less dangerous once it develops. And while modern vaccines eliminate the most common cause, there are a few others that can create a case like Mai's.

Causes of epiglottitis

The Cleveland Clinic says that most modern cases of epiglottitis are caused by bacterial infections. These include streptococcus pneumoniae and streptococcus A, B and C, as well as staphylococcus aureus, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Streptococcus pneumoniae, also known as pneumococcus, is better known for causing issues like pneumonia and meningitis. The other three forms of streptococcus most often cause blood infections. And staphylococcus aureus can cause issues ranging from toxic shock syndrome to skin infections to pneumonia.

When any of these bacterial strains reach the epiglottis, they can cause the swelling that marks epiglottitis. Rather than sitting around the rim of the windpipe and closing as needed, as a healthy epiglottis does, one affected by epiglottitis is always covering part of the windpipe. This is what makes the condition so dangerous.

The Mayo Clinic also adds that nonbacterial factors can also trigger a case, though these are even less common. They list trauma to the throat, hot liquids, and caustic liquids as possible triggers.

Symptoms in children

Prior to modern vaccines, most cases of epiglottitis were caused by a variation of the flu known as haemophilus influenzae type b (from the CDC). It's a flu strain most children are now inoculated against through some of their earliest vaccines, specifically the Hib vaccine.

The Mayo Clinic explains that prior to the vaccine, people carrying the Hib bacteria would sneeze or cough, releasing infected droplets into the air. Other people would then inhale these droplets, putting them at risk for epiglottitis as well as other infections.

Infections are not limited by age but the condition was more aggressive in children. Symptoms develop in a matter of hours and can prove fatal in less than a day if untreated. Symptoms include a fever, an extreme sore throat, fussy or restless behavior, excess drooling, difficulty swallowing or complaints that it is painful, and an unusual high pitched sound known as a stridor when they inhale. The symptoms will often improve when the child sits up or when they lean forward.

Symptoms in adults

Symptoms in adults are much the same as they are in children except that they progress more slowly and behavioral changes are not always as noticeable, per the Mayo Clinic. Children tend to get fussy or restless when they are sick because they don't understand the process of illness or are unable to explain what is wrong. And the progression of symptoms is likely slower in adults because their windpipes are larger and their immune systems more robust.

Adults still develop symptoms, however. Days or weeks after infection occurs, adults will also experience a severe sore throat, fever, and difficulty or pain when swallowing. The telltale high pitch stridor will also be present and may be easier to notice as the adult can breathe with more control and look for its presence. Adults may also drool as symptoms progress, while also developing a deeper or huskier voice.

Whether it occurs in children or adults, epiglottitis is considered a medical emergency. While symptoms creep up slowly on adults and can be mistaken for colds or flus, as Mai explained to her co-hosts on The Real, it can be life-threatening. Once it reaches the point where it affects someone's breathing, it is vital that the infected person receive medical attention.

Diagnosis and treatment

If caught early, epiglottitis can be treated with antibiotics. But as the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia explains, cases are rarely caught early enough to avoid additional treatments. Most often, these treatments don't seek to cure the infection, but rather to restore a patient's ability to breathe. Until these treatments are administered, however, the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests doing everything possible to keep the patient calm, particularly if they are a child. Stress and fear can cause further swelling and making breathing harder

These interventions can include the use of an oxygen mask or a breathing tube, if the airway has enough room for one. The Mayo Clinic adds that if the airway is not big enough, doctors may create an artificial airway in the cartilage of the trachea using a needle cricothyroidotomy procedure.

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia goes on to explain that once the patient's breathing is stable, the diagnostic process can begin. As there are many possible reasons an airway will close, doctors may run several tests to pinpoint a cause. These can include blood tests, throat swabs, and x-rays of the throat. In serious cases the doctor may perform surgery on the patient's throat so the doctor can see the epiglottis directly. All of these tests can confirm a case of epiglottitis, at which point antibiotics are administered. Usually given first through an IV, they begin the process of destroying the infecting bacteria entirely.

Life after recovery

Jeannie Mai thought she had a cold or maybe a low grade flu. As BET reports, she told her cohosts that she thought she could power through the symptoms using over-the-counter medication and willpower. And in most cases she would have been right. The odds that her symptoms were part of a much more serious infection were low.

Unfortunately for Mai, she beat those odds. And not in a good way. Epiglottitis is rare and rarer still in adults. Thankfully Mai was able to receive help in time, though she was forced to leave Dancing with the Stars despite her love for performing each week.

Almost a year later, she is completely recovered and doing well. According to her IMDb page, her upcoming projects include a documentary as well as her ongoing work for The Real. Rare though her diagnosis was, Mai was able to recover and jump back into the work that she loves.