Chances Are, Your Brain Will Not Be Eaten by an Amoeba


This is worrisome. We have been reminded that a science-fiction horror-film-esque fear is actually a reality. Brain-eating amoebas exist, and they have killed three people this summer, including a boy in Virginia, a girl in Florida, and a man in Louisiana. Fortunately, NPR has spoken with an expert in infectious diseases, William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University, who set some of our fears to rest, and advised on the best course for avoiding a brain-eating amoeba, a/k/a, the ominous-sounding “Naegleria fowleri.”

About little Naegleria,

The bug crawls into the brain through the nose and causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, a disease of the central nervous system that is almost always fatal.

To do this, the amoebas need you to really jump in the water so a lot of it is forced up your nose. Thus, Schaffner says, don’t do cannonballs. Don’t do anything that forces water up your nose. (Maybe avoid your running mans and your “leisure dives,” too, or even jumping off a diving board, if you’re really concerned.) Note that this is not an issue in chlorinated pools. Natural bodies of water, hot springs, and unchlorinated spas — and particularly, warm, stagnant waters where these amoebas thrive — pose a risk. Do not going swimming in warm, stagnant waters, because that is yucky.

The bug, for its part, “does not wish to live in us,” says Schaffner, and the likelihood of it doing so and causing infection is “about 1 in 10 million.” Moderately comforting on a certain level? The amoebas don’t even really like brains, says Jonathan Yoder, MPH, of the CDC:

“It is normally eating bacteria in its natural environment, but for some reason it does use the brain as a food source when it gets into humans,” Yoder tells WebMD.

In any case, if you are infected your chances of living through it are not very good. A 9-year-old California girl did survive after being given anti-amoeba antibiotics and has recovered completely. Seven people have survived worldwide (there have been 400 some reported cases globally). And about 3 cases are reported yearly so there’s really no sign that this is a trend, thank God.

For added protection, you can buy a nose clip, or just hold your nose. Also, you may want to avoid that neti pot you rave about so much. Or, at least, put boiled water in it. Seriously. No more of this, please.

To Avoid Brain-Eating Amoebas, Hold Your Nose [NPR]
Brain-Eating Amoeba FAQ [WebMD]