Brain-Eating Amoebas: Orlando Summer Safety

Amoeba Safety Tips for Central Florida

Family kayaking in Florida lake
Family kayaking in Florida lake. Photo © Brocreative via Shutterstock

Amoebas. In our water. We've all heard about them. Our parents warned us about them. But are they real?

It's certainly not common, but every year a few people become infected with brain-eating amoebas. Almost all die.

Amoebas are microscopic single-celled organisms. The type of amoeba that infects swimmers, travels to the brain and causes disease is called Naegleria fowleri.

The warm summers and abundant lakes in Orlando make Central Florida a high-risk area for infection. It's important to know where amoebas live and how to protect yourself and your family from infection.

WHERE DO AMOEBAS LIVE?

  • Naegleria amoebas live and thrive in very warm water. This is why infection reports in the United States start up in the summer months. Amoebas can survive in water temperatures of 113 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Amoebas are found in many places, including lakes and ponds, slow-moving rivers, untreated pools and spas, mud puddles, untreated well water, hot springs, collections of runoff water from power plants, aquariums, and soil.
  • Naegleria amoebas cannot survive in salt water or in properly treated pools or municipal water.
  • Florida and Texas are home to over half of all N. fowleri infections in the United States. Infections and deaths have occurred in Central Florida.

HOW DO AMOEBAS CAUSE INFECTION?

  • N. fowleri infections are not contagious. You cannot catch one from someone who is ill, or from sharing a drink with an infected person. It doesn't work that way.
  • Most infections in the United States occur in children (60%) and the disease is most commonly seen in males (80%).
  • Amoebas travel through the nose to the brain, which is why infections most often occur after water skiing, diving or engaging in water sports. These activities cause water to be forced up the nose.
  • Normally feeding on bacteria, the Naegleria amoeba begins to use the brain as a food source after infecting a human.
  • Infections have occurred as a result of using untreated tap water in neti pots when cleaning the nostrils. Experts recommend only using distilled water in neti pots for this reason.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF INFECTION?

  • Infection with N. fowleri amoebas, called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, is rare; it occurs up to eight times each year, almost exclusively during July, August and September.
  • Some people may have antibodies to amoebas, which means they may have become infected at some point and successfully fought off the infection without developing symptoms of disease.
  • Symptoms of disease occur two to 15 days following infection with the amoeba. Death typically occurs within three to seven days of symptoms appearing. It is very rare for a symptomatic person to survive infection.
  • Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis begins like viral meningitis and may cause headache, stiff neck, fever, loss of appetite, altered mental state, vomiting, seizures or coma. Other symptoms may also be present.
  • Several drugs exist to kill N. fowleri amoebas, but they rarely improve survival rates, possibly because the disease is too advanced once symptoms begin and the cause is identified.

HOW TO AVOID INFECTION WITH NAEGLERIA FOWLERI AMOEBAS

  • Avoiding potential sources of amoebas, such as warm lakes and untreated pools, is a good first step at preventing infection.
  • Because the N. fowleri amoeba gains access to the brain through the nose, water sports, underwater swimming and other activities that force water up the nose should be avoided during the summer.
  • Wearing a nose clip when boating, swimming or playing in or near warm water is helpful.
  • Opt for one of Central Florida's natural springs instead of local lakes. The low temperatures of cool springs help prevent infection with amoebas.
  • Avoiding mud puddles and muddy river banks will reduce your risk of infection. This is a less common, but possible, method of infection.
  • Only use distilled or sterile water in neti pots when cleansing the nose. If this is not possible, it is important to boil tap water for at least one minute and then cool before using.