No surface water is ever completely safe, but with warmer temperatures, a particularly rare and usually deadly amoeba is thriving in all rivers and lakes in Texas.
Enjoying any body of water requires precautions. This summer, be sure to remember these life-saving tips to help ensure you and your loved ones can return for years to come.
Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis, or PAM, is an illness caused by Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba that is found in almost all untreated, fresh surface water and in soil. It thrives when the water is warmer than 80 degrees, stagnant or slow-moving. Nicknamed the “brain-eating amoeba,” the amoeba travels up the nose and makes its way into the brain along the olfactory nerve, destroying brain tissue.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, most PAM infections occur when the temperatures are hot and water levels are lower.
Prevention is easy.
PAM only infects people when water containing the amoeba enters through the nose. Water may enter the nose when someone dives or jumps into freshwater.
• The infection cannot be spread from person to person.
• The infection cannot be spread by drinking contaminated water.
Anyone infected may start to show symptoms after 5 days. Often, this infection is mistaken for the flu or bacterial meningitis. Early symptoms include:
• nausea or vomiting
• loss of balance
• a stiff neck
Once symptoms start, death can occur within two weeks of the initial infection.
If you, a family member or a friend start showing symptoms after getting water up the nose, please get checked by a medical professional immediately. Most importantly, you must inform the medical professional that you may have been exposed to the amoeba by having freshwater forced up your nose. Specific tests are required to diagnose the illness in time.
While the disease is rare, identified cases thus far have almost always been fatal and mainly occur during the summer months. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1962 to 2018, only 4 people in the U.S. out of 145 diagnosed with the infection have survived.
The Brazos River Authority does not test for the Naegleria fowleri amoeba because it is common in all surface water throughout the world. Those who live in warmer-weather states such as Texas should assume there is a risk when entering all warm freshwater bodies.
The Weather Channel reported an uptick in cases of Naegleria fowleri in northern states could be the result of warmer water temperatures brought on by climate change.
So how do you protect yourself, friends and family?
Use nose clips or hold your nose shut while jumping into the water. With the amoeba also often found in soil, it’s best to avoid stirring up underwater sediment.
Texas Health and Human Services recommends avoiding water activities in bodies of warm freshwater with low water levels. Health officials recommend people avoid stagnant or polluted water and take “No Swimming” signs seriously. Swimming pools and hot tubs that are properly cleaned, maintained and chlorinated are generally safe, as is salt water.
If water does get up your nose and you start showing symptoms, go to a medical professional and inform them of your recent activities.
For more information about PAM, please click here or contact the Texas Department of State Health Services Public Information Office at (512) 458-7400.