Florida man dies after brain amoeba infection, possibly from flushing sinuses with tap water, health officials warn


A person in Charlotte County, Florida has died after becoming infected with the rare brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri.

The contamination likely came from “sinus flushing practices using tap water,” according to a news release from the Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County. The release was issued in February to alert the public about the contamination.

On Thursday, the department confirmed that the infected person had died and officials were still investigating the case.

“An epidemiological investigation is being conducted to understand the unique circumstances of this infection. I can confirm that the infection unfortunately resulted in a death and any additional information regarding this case is confidential to protect patient privacy,” Jae Williams, press secretary for the Florida Department of Health, said in an emailed statement.

Naegleria fowleri infection “can only occur when water contaminated with amoebas enters the body through the nose,” according to the department’s news release.

The Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County warned residents to use only distilled or sterile water when making sinus rinses. Tap water should be boiled for at least one minute and cooled before using it for sinus flushing, which usually involves a neti pot.

Tap water that has not been sterilized is not safe to use as a nasal rinse because it is not adequately filtered or treated and therefore may contain low levels of microorganisms such as bacteria and protozoa, including amoebae, according to the US Food and Drug Administration’s website Medicines. However, humans cannot become infected by drinking tap water, as stomach acid usually kills these organisms.

Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba, a single-celled living organism, that can be found in soil and warm fresh water such as lakes, rivers, and hot springs throughout the United States. Commonly called “brain-eating amoeba,” it can cause brain infections, which usually occur when water containing amoeba travels up through the nose, such as when swimming.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about three people in the United States become infected each year, and these infections are usually fatal.

From 1962 to 2021, only four in 154 people in the United States survived a brain-eating amoeba infection, according to the CDC. Just last year, a boy died after becoming infected after swimming in Lake Mead, another child in Nebraska died after becoming infected after swimming, and a Missouri resident died from the infection after visiting a beach in Iowa.

Signs and symptoms of infection are initially severe headaches, fever, nausea and vomiting and may progress to a stiff neck, seizures, hallucinations and coma. The infection is treated with a combination of drugs, including the antibiotic azithromycin, the antifungal fluconazole, the antimicrobial drug miltefosine, and the corticosteroid dexamethasone.

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