The Florida Health Department has recently reported a case of the microscopic single-celled amoeba called Naegleria fowleri — often referred to as a brain-eating amoeba. It was confirmed in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located. If a person is infected with the amoeba, it is usually fatal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States has seen 145 cases of infection caused by the amoeba between 1962 and 2018. Only four of those infected have survived. The condition of the individual in Florida has not been reported.
How You Get It
The amoeba enters a person’s body through the nose. While it has been found in soil, it is usually in warm bodies of freshwater, including:
- Hot springs
- Warm water discharge from industrial plants
- Human-made aquatic venues that are not adequately chlorinated
- Infrequently in contaminated tap water and hot water heaters
The amoeba makes its way from the nose to the brain and spinal cord. It then destroys the brain tissue by causing the disease, primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
Infections from the brain-destroying organism occur most often during the months of July through September. During this time there are prolonged periods of hot weather resulting in higher water temperatures, lower water levels, and greater numbers of people seeking relief from the heat spending more time in the water.
Infections have occurred in nineteen different US states and in the US Virgin Islands. Cases have been seen on both coasts and as far north as Minnesota.
Symptoms of the brain-eating infection can begin as early as one day after exposure and as long as nine days. Symptoms include:
- Severe frontal headache
- Stiff neck
- Altered mental status
Infection is not spread from person to person. You cannot get an infection from drinking or accidentally swallowing water that is contaminated by Naegleria fowleri.
That said, another potential entry of the amoeba into the body — which has been documented — is through the use of contaminated tap water in Neti pots for nasal rinsing. Two cases have been reported in the US from Neti Pot use. One case in the US and more cases globally have been reported from ritual nasal rinsing, a practice of followers of the Islamic faith. It is recommended that water used for ritual nasal rinsing or for use with a Neti pot be boiled or distilled. If this is not an option, the water can be filtered or disinfected.
This year is predicted to be hotter than average across the country. The CDC site warns that the amoeba is present in warm freshwater anywhere in the United States. While contracting an infection is rare, individuals should exercise caution when in warm bodies of water by trying to avoid activities where water can go up the nose.