Dangers of Brain-Eating Bacteria

An infection from brain-eating bacteria recently killed a man in North Carolina — but what is the bacteria and how does one become infected?

How to avoid the brain-eating amoeba while swimming

What is a Brain-eating bacterium? A North Carolina man died after swimming at Fantasy Lake Water Park. The water was infected by a “brain-eating amoeba.” Brain-eating bacteria — also called “brain-eating amoeba” and “Naegleria fowleri”— can be found in soil and warm freshwater such as lakes, rivers, hot springs. It isn’t found in salt water. Humans can become infected when contaminated water goes up a person's nose. They can’t be infected from drinking contaminated water. Once in the nose, the amoeba then travels to the brain along the olfactory nerve and begins destroying brain tissue. Symptoms begin with a severe frontal headache, fever, nausea, vomiting. The infection then progresses to stiff neck, seizures, coma. The infection is almost always fatal.

N. fowleri amoebas are relatively common, but they rarely cause brain disease, known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). … It's not clear whether N. fowleri is a rare infection that always causes PAM and is almost always fatal, or a more common infection that only sometimes causes PAM. Still, infections are extremely rare. From 1962 to 2018, there were just 145 cases of Naegleria fowleri reported in the U.S., according to NCDHH. But the illness has a high fatality rate — of the 145 cases, just 4 people survived.

There is no rapid test for Naegleria fowleri in water — identifying the organism can take weeks, according to the CDC. This means that people who go swimming in warm freshwater should assume that there is a low risk of infection, the CDC says. In the U.S., only 4 people out of 145 infected between 1962 and 2018 have survived according to the CDC. To avoid the brain-eating amoeba while swimming: Hold your nose shut, using nose clips, keep your head above water, avoid stirring up the sediment in shallow, warm freshwater areas.