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Could shower disease be on your shower head?

May 23, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Before she got a lung infection, Mary Lou Area says she used to love to take long showers. But after a while, she wondered if there was a connection between the showers and problems she was having with coughing and fatigue.

For weeks, she didn't know what it was. After coughing to the point of exhaustion, she went to see a specialist.

"He said, 'You may have this really weird thing,'" said Area.

That "weird thing" was a Nontuberculous Mycobacteria infection, or NTM. It's also called "shower disease."

"Well, this an infection with a certain type of bacteria that is a distant cousin of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis and the one that causes leprosy," said UCLA Infectious Disease specialist Dr. Otto Yang. Yang says although it's rare, he's seen several cases in Southern California.

One expert estimates it can hit anywhere from two to five people for every 100,000 in the U.S. Doctors say they're seeing a spike, especially in women around age 50 who are slim, Caucasian and otherwise in good health. But Yang says it is not clear exactly why doctors are seeing that trend.

The disease strikes hardest in people with a weakened immune system or chronic lung problems. Dr. Yang says NTM is usually harmless to healthy individuals, but not everyone agrees.

Professor Norman Pace and his students at University of Colorado-Boulder spearheaded a recent study that found 30 percent of shower heads harbor significant levels of disease-causing bacteria.

All of us are bathed in bacteria every day, but not all of it gets into our bodies. But the showerhead makes it especially easy for all that potentially harmful bacteria to have a direct route into your respiratory system.

"As the water is coming out, it's an aerosol," said Pace.

To reduce bacteria exposure, experts recommend running very hot water through your pipes for a few minutes and soaking your shower head regularly in a bacteria-killing agent and occasionaly replacing your showerhead. While Yang says this bacteria is all around us and can very difficult to avoid, he also cautions people not to panic.

Area's case was extreme. She had to have part of her lung removed. Many patients will have to continue with antibiotics. For Area, it will likely be for the rest of life.

"It's hard to enjoy your life when you feel not so hot," she said.

Although there is much debate about how much of a public health threat NTM is, Area hopes someone will hear her story, get help and become more vigilant about showers, hot tubs, whirlpools and maybe change their routine.


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