How Floridians can avoid brain-eating amoeba infections

A person in southwest Florida recently died.
A Sunstar Ambulance leaves Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor. A person in southwest Florida recently died from a brain-eating amoeba infection.
A Sunstar Ambulance leaves Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor. A person in southwest Florida recently died from a brain-eating amoeba infection. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Mar. 8|Updated Mar. 12

Florida is known for dangerous wildlife like alligators and sharks. But one deadly creature flies under the radar: the Naegleria fowleri, commonly called the brain-eating amoeba.

The microscopic organism, which is found in the Sunshine State and elsewhere across the U.S., recently infected and killed a person in Southwest Florida, possibly because the individual used tap water to rinse their sinuses.

Infections have previously been seen in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Here’s what to know about the amoeba and how to stay safe.

Where does it live?

The amoeba, a single-cell organism that eats bacteria, is naturally found in warm fresh water such as lakes, rivers and hot springs, as well as in soil, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It can also be found in tap water or venues such as swimming pools and splash pads that don’t have enough chlorine in them.

Nationally, cases happen mostly in July, August and September.

Related: Brain-eating amoeba infection kills person in Florida

How does it infect people?

Infections are almost always fatal. They occur when the amoeba, in water, enters the nose and moves to the brain.

You can’t be infected by drinking contaminated water, and the organism doesn’t spread between people like the flu or COVID-19.

The amoeba causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis, an infection that destroys brain tissue. At first, symptoms can include headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. Other ailments may develop later, such as stiff neck, confusion, seizures, hallucinations and coma.

After symptoms start, the infection usually causes death within about five days, the CDC says.

Federal health authorities urge people to seek medical attention if they develop symptoms after swimming in fresh water.

How common are infections?

Not very, according to official case numbers, but experts say infections are likely underreported.

Only 157 cases were logged in the U.S. from 1962 to last year, according to the CDC.

Florida accounted for 37 cases, the second-highest behind only Texas, which reported 39.

Most infections have been linked to swimming in southern states, federal health officials say.

Over the course of 60 years, boys ages 14 and younger made up the majority of U.S. infections.

It’s unclear why, but it could be because they are more likely to dive into water and play in the sediment at the bottoms of lakes and rivers, according to the CDC.

Cases are probably underreported because the infection’s symptoms mirror those of meningitis, which can result in a misdiagnosis, said Travis Heggie, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who specializes in wilderness and travel medicine.

Related: Florida teen with rare brain-eating amoeba flown from Tampa to Chicago facility

How can Floridians stay safe?

If someone uses a neti pot to rinse their sinuses, they should use boiled water or buy distilled or sterile water.

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People can use nose clips or keep their head above water while swimming in places like warm lakes and rivers; avoid jumping or diving into warm fresh water, especially during the summer; and steer clear of sediment in such water.

What happened in Southwest Florida?

A person died after being infected, possibly because they used tap water to rinse their sinuses. Few details have been released about the case.

Late last month, the Charlotte County health department said it was investigating how the infection occurred and was working with public utilities “to identify any potential links and make any necessary corrective actions.”

The department didn’t answer questions from the Tampa Bay Times. It advises that county residents make sure water doesn’t go up their nose while showering; avoid putting their head under water while taking a bath; and stop children from using slip-n-slides, among other precautions.

The Associated Press contributed information to this report.