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Brain-Eating Amoebas: How to Keep Your Kids Safe in Freshwater Lakes and Rivers

Posted in Water on September 19, 2018

“Brain-Eating Amoebas” – it sounds like something straight out of a horror movie. Honestly, it is just as horrific as it sounds. These brain-eating amoebas can enter the body through your nose when you are diving or swimming underwater in freshwater lakes or rivers. “The amoeba penetrates the brain and eats it via a feeding cup”, explains Dr. Karen Ross, infectious disease specialist and a neurologist at Indiana University Health. This feeding cup helps in ingesting blood cells and tissues from the host. It makes its way from into the brain. This scary bug literally devours the brain tissue as it goes up causing swelling and death.

Every summer, we hear about one or two cases of these brain-eating amoebas. The bacteria generally affects children and young adults. In August of 2010, 7-year old Kyle was having the summer of his life while vacationing with his family. He took a few dips at a river in Texas and within a week of the family’s return, Kyle was dead. He was exposed to the deadly amoeba Naegleria fowleri.

Summers are all about cooling off and enjoying the fun water days. But it is definitely not exciting to be worried about these deadly bacteria lurking inside your water. But how concerned should you really be? Here is a quick look on what these brain-eating amoebas are and what precautions you can take, to help keep your kids safer when they swim in freshwater lakes and rivers.

What are Naegleria Fowleri?

Amoebas are single-celled organisms. Naegleria Fowleri is a species that causes serious inflammation of the brain tissue called meningoencephalitis. Naegleria has several species but only fowleri causes illness in humans. All the subtypes of fowleri are equally threatening. The pathogen is microscopic: 8 micrometers to 15 micrometers in size. To give you an idea, our hair is 40 o 50 micrometers wide. It was first identified in Australia in 1965 by Dr. M. Fowler and R. Carter. Even though it was discovered in Australia, it is believed that it evolved in the United States.

Just like other amoebas, Naegleria uses cell division to reproduce. Amoeba exist in 3 different forms – free-living cysts, flagellated forms and trophozoites. When conditions aren’t favorable, it exists as inactive cysts and when they are right, cysts transform into trophozoites – the amoeba’s feeding form.

Mode of transmission inside human body:

The amoeba enters the human body by penetrating nasal mucosa. It is believed that forceful water like during diving can facilitate this penetration. The amoeba, now in active mode, travels to olfactory nerves to cause nerve cell death. They cross holes in bones and literally destroy all types of brain cells.

When will I be at most risk?

The most risk is posed during the months of summer, mainly July, August and September. They flourish and thrive in hot waters as hot (as 113 degrees Fahrenheit). They are most common in Southern states of US like Florida, Texas and Louisiana. A potentially deadly bacteria has been detected in a river in Louisiana right after the summer started in 2018. This was the third time the river detected positive for the bacteria.

The amoebas are found only in freshwater sources such as:

  • Warm lakes and ponds
  • Warm rivers that are deep and slow-flowing
  • Mud puddles
  • Untreated water in pools or spas
  • Hot springs, thermally polluted water or geothermal water sources

The bacteria can’t be found in saltwater. It also can’t survive in properly treated pools and municipal waters.

Surprisingly, the amoebas won’t infect you if they are on your skin or even if you drink it.  The only problem is when it goes up your nose.

Is the infection very common?

No. (Good News!) There have only been about 40 infections between 2007-2016. The infection, however, has an appalling fatality rate that stands at 98%. Only one person has survived the infection till now.


Whenever any individual contracts this rare infection, they usually die because the amount of inflammation that the amoeba causes in the brain is difficult to both diagnose and treat. The incubation period of the illness is between 2 to 15 days. Symptoms are generally nonspecific and doctors often face difficulty while identifying the infection with the person’s symptoms.

According to William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, symptoms are usually characterized by nausea and an ill feeling along with brain impairment that leads to memory loss and thinking loss, which eventually lead to coma. There are other symptoms of the infection as well like:

  • Loss of control and balance
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • A change is sense of smell or taste
  • Confusion in day to day activities
  • Sleepiness
  • Severe headache like migraines
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Stiff Neck
  • Fever

More often than not, these symptoms might be caused by some other conditions.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosis is done by using microscopic visualization of CSF fluid and by specialized culture techniques. Most patients that are alive when they visit hospital have reached such advanced stages of diseases that they don’t survive even after extensive support and treatment.

The suggested drug for treatment is Amphotericin B, but there is no data proving this is effective. It is injected into a vein or the space around the spinal cord.

One of the survivors, Sebastian DeLeon, was 16 years old when he had intense headaches and was immediately taken to Florida hospital. The doctors immediately ordered a spinal tap for meningitis and one of the lab scientists found amoeba moving in spinal fluid. The doctors took action and lowered the body temperature of the teen to 33 degrees and induced a coma. They then inserted a breathing tube and gave him some medicine that successfully killed the amoeba.

Prevention: Keep Water Out of Your Nose

The prevention tip would be to prevent the amount of water that goes up into your nose. CDC recommends wearing nose clips or holding your nose while under water. Also, make sure that you don’t go too deep especially when the water is too hot. Avoid digging in or stirring up sediments deep under water in lakes or ponds.

By: Pooja Sharma, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)