What are brain-eating amoebas — and how can you protect yourself?

It sounds like the plot of a horror movie: deadly “brain-eating” amoebas. But for one North Carolina man, that nightmare tragically came to life.

After swimming in a lake at a water park in Cumberland County on July 12, the man, 59-year-old Eddie Gray, became infected with an amoeba, known as Naegleria fowleri, and later died, according to a statement released by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

“The organism invades through the nose, up into the brain,” Stan Deresinski, MD, an infectious disease specialist with Stanford Health Care, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. There, it destroys brain tissue, causing brain swelling and death, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Naegleria fowleri causes this acute, rapidly progressive and most often fatal disease,” says Deresinski. “Clinically, it looks just like severe, rapidly progressing bacterial meningitis.”

Symptoms of the infection start with severe headache, fever, nausea and vomiting and can progress to a stiff neck, seizures and coma, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Photo: Getty Images
Brain-eating amoebas, known as Naegleria fowleri, are often found in warm water lakes. (Photo: Getty Images)

The microscopic amoeba is typically found in warm, freshwater lakes and rivers (particularly in southern-tier states), as well as hot springs, according to the CDC. Another possible infection risk: nasal irrigation (also known as neti pots) with contaminated tap water.

However, you can’t get infected by drinking water contaminated with Naegleria fowleri since your stomach acid kills it. The single-cell organism is also not found in salt water, such as the ocean. And here’s a reason to keep up with pool maintenance: The amoeba is not typically found in pools because “it’s killed by sufficient chlorine,” notes Deresinski.

It’s worth noting that infections from “brain-eating” amoebas are rare. According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, there have been only 145 known individuals infected with Naegleria fowleri in the U.S. from 1962 through 2018.

Even so, how can you protect yourself? Your best bet is to keep your head out of the water when swimming in lakes and rivers. Or better yet, wear nose plugs.

“Rationally, I wouldn’t particularly worry about it,” says Deresinksi. “But if I lived on the lake and had a kid and that kid wanted to swim in the lake, I would have him or her wear nose clips.”

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