A person in Charlotte County, Florida, was recently sickened by a single-celled organism that can cause a rare “brain-eating infection,” possibly as a result of flushing their nipples with unfiltered tap water, health officials reported (opens in a new tab). No information was provided about the person’s condition, but the infection is usually fatal.
The organism, called amoeba Naegleria fowleritypically lives in soil and warm fresh water and can sometimes grow in water tanks, heaters and pipes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (opens in a new tab) (CDC). In rare cases, it can infiltrate the human body and cause a disease of the brain and spinal cord known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). CDC (opens in a new tab) say. People cannot develop PAM by swallowing N. fowleri or by interacting with someone who is already infected; instead, the amoeba enters the brain through the nose, traveling through the nerve that relays smell information from the nose to the brain.
Symptoms of infection appear between one and 12 days later N. fowleri into the nose, and the infection is almost always fatal – people usually die from one to 18 days after symptoms start.
On Thursday (February 23), the Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County (DOH-Charlotte) announced that it had confirmed a local case of N. fowleri infection, “perhaps as a result of sinus flushing practices using tap water.”
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Regarding the use of neti pots and other sinus flushing methods, the The Food and Drug Administration warns (opens in a new tab) that “tap water is not safe to use as a nasal rinse because it has not been properly filtered or treated.” People should boil and cool tap water before using it for such purposes, or put it through a filter designed to trap infectious organisms; alternatively, distilled or sterile water is a safe alternative, the agency notes.
“DOH-Charlotte, as part of a multi-agency response, is continuing to investigate how this infection occurred and is working with the local public utilities to identify any possible links and take any necessary corrective actions,” said the department.
In addition, DOH-Charlotte included the following instructions for Charlotte County residents:
- When making sinus rinse solutions, use only distilled or sterile water. Tap water should be boiled for at least 1 minute and cooled before sinus flushing.
- DO NOT allow water to go up your nose or sniff water into your nose while bathing, showering, washing your face, or swimming in small hard/inflatable plastic pools.
- DO NOT jump in or put your head under swimming water (baths, small hard plastic/inflatable pools); walk or lower yourself in.
- DO NOT let children play with hoses or sprinklers unsupervised, as they may accidentally squirt water up their noses. Avoid Slides N Slides or other activities where it is difficult to prevent water from going up the nose.
- Keep small plastic pools hard or blown clean by emptying, scrubbing and letting them dry after each use.
- Keep your pool properly disinfected before and during use.