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What is the brain-eating amoeba?

Keith Roach, MD
Internal Medicine
Naegleria fowlerii is an amoeba that lives in warm water, and has been found in the U.S. mostly in Louisiana and Florida, but was originally described in Australia. Although cases of meningitis from Naegleria are rare, they are extremely dangerous. Because treatment is so poor, prevention is the best. That means not swimming in freshwater ponds in endemic areas.
 
Also, the amoeba can be found occasionally in municipal water supplies. Drinking the water is safe; however, there have been cases of infection using nasal inhalation of steam (Neti pot). This should not be done with tap water, but with bottled or distilled water. Water can also be made safe by boiling it.
The "brain-eating amoeba" is a parasite called Naegleria fowleri. It typically is found in warm freshwater, such as lakes and rivers, most often in southern states. People can become infected when they get water containing the amoeba up their nose, usually while swimming. The amoeba then travels to the brain. You can't become infected from drinking water contaminated with Naegleria, and the infection isn't passed from person to person.

Infections are rare--around three cases per year in the U.S., on average--but are almost always fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only three people are known to have survived the infection since 1962. Experts aren't sure why some people become infected while millions of others who are exposed don't get sick. 

Symptoms usually start suddenly five days after infection and include headache, fever and nausea, then progress to seizures, stiff neck, confusion and coma. People usually die within a week after symptoms appear. The CDC advises that anyone who shows these symptoms seek medical treatment right away. Bacterial meningitis, which is curable with prompt treatment, is much more common and causes similar symptoms. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.