Brain-eating amoebas are not what they sound like, despite their ominous name. Naegleria fowleri is a microscopic organism that can cause meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain) if it infects your brain through your nose or ears.
The disease usually affects people who are swimming in warm lakes and rivers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Brain-eating amoebas live in warm freshwater and cannot survive in salt water.
What are brain-eating amoebas?
Brain-eating amoebas are single-celled organisms that can cause fatal infections in humans. They’re found in warm, fresh water, and enter the body through the nose.
Once they’re in the brain, they feed on brain tissue and cause swelling and damage. In most cases, death occurs within two weeks.
Early diagnosis and treatment is critical for survival. People with symptoms of a brain infection should be hospitalized immediately and tested for an amoeba infection.
A type of encephalitis known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) has been linked to these parasites.
The disease is rare but has a high mortality rate — at least three out of four people who contract it die from it.
Signs and symptoms include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, sensitivity to light or sound, confusion or loss of consciousness.
There’s no vaccine for PAM, so early detection is important. If someone suspects they have PAM, they should get medical attention immediately.
What is naegleria fowleri?
Naegleria fowleri is a free-living microscopic amoeba (FLA) that is commonly found in warm freshwater and soil. This amoeba can cause severe brain damage and death in humans if it enters the nose and travels to the brain.
The good news is that naegleria fowleri infections are rare, and there are steps you can take to protect yourself. The most important thing to do is avoid swimming or diving in bodies of fresh water when the water is warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
You should also avoid digging in, or playing around with dirt that may contain naegleria fowleri. If you have been swimming or diving and develop symptoms such as headache, fever, nausea, vomiting or stiff neck within one week after exposure then consult your doctor immediately for testing because these symptoms could be signs of an infection.
Where do brain-eating amoebas live?
Brain-eating amoebas are commonly found in warm freshwater, such as lakes, rivers, and hot springs. They can also be found in poorly maintained swimming pools, and in thermally polluted water.
In the United States, brain-eating amoebas are most commonly found in the southern states. Most cases of infection occur between July and September.
There is no vaccine for brain-eating amoeba; all you can do is avoid contact with the organism by not swallowing any water that may contain it.
Unfortunately, once a person has been infected, there’s very little that can be done to save them. Symptoms usually begin three days after being exposed to the amoeba, which include nausea, vomiting, fever, headache, stiff neck and confusion.
After this point death usually occurs within two weeks. Once a person has died from primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), the disease cannot be spread or contracted again.
PAM is often fatal because many people don’t know they have been infected until the symptoms show up. A person who contracts PAM will likely die, but if they survive they will make a full recovery with no long-term side effects.
It’s best to take precautions when traveling to regions where brain-eating amoebas are common. It’s also worth noting that PAM doesn’t transmit well — meaning even if a person vomits directly into another person’s mouth, the transmission rate is less than one percent.
If you’re traveling in an area where PAM might be present, it might be worth packing some iodine tablets with your other supplies just in case.
How can I avoid getting infected with a brain-eating amoeba?
There are a few simple steps you can take to avoid getting infected with a brain-eating amoeba:
- Avoid swimming in stagnant water. This is where the amoebas tend to live.
- If you do swim in stagnant water, make sure to wear a nose plug. The amoebas enter through the nose and travel to the brain.
- Avoid exposing yourself to contaminated water. This includes freshwater lakes, rivers, and hot springs.
- Avoid stirring up sediment while playing on or near the shoreline of a lake or river. Avoid submerging your head in hot springs (if it’s safe for you to do so).
- If the water is dirty, keep your head above the surface.
- Finally, it’s important to note that swimming pools have become more susceptible to infection because many states no longer require chlorine treatment for public pools. When combined with other factors like heat and improper circulation, this leads to an increased risk of contracting an amoebic infection. Keep these things in mind when visiting a pool!
How can I prevent this from happening to me?
The best way to prevent an infection from a brain-eating amoeba is to avoid exposure to contaminated water.
This means avoiding swimming in stagnant water, properly chlorinating swimming pools, and using sterile water when irrigating the nose. If you believe you have been exposed to one of these parasites, contact your doctor immediately.
A brain-eating amoeba is a rare but serious infection that can cause death. Early diagnosis and treatment is critical. There are three main types of brain-eating amoebas: Naegleria fowleri, Balamuthia mandrillaris, and Acanthamoeba spp. Symptoms of a brain-eating amoeba infection include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, and seizures. The amoeba typically enters the body through the nose while swimming or diving in warm freshwater places like lakes, rivers, and hot springs. However it can also enter through the eyes while swimming in contaminated water such as when washing your face or bathing. If you have any of these symptoms you should seek medical attention immediately.
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