Your Shower Head Can Make You Sick, Say Researchers

Tuesday, 01 Oct 2013 04:41 PM

By Nick Tate

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Something new to scare you: Researchers have determined dirty shower heads in the home can spread a dangerous type of bacterial lung infection — called nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) — that is closely related to TB but harder to treat.
 
In new research published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care, medical specialists with National Jewish Health medical center in Denver calculate that up to 30,000 new cases of NTM infections occur each year — from bacteria in shower heads and soil — and the numbers are growing
 
"What we are finding is that there are more women with this infection than men, and strikingly, there is more disease among white women who are tall and thin," said Michael Iseman, M.D., a professor of medicine at National Jewish Health who helped lead the study.

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"It's actually quite puzzling and deserves a great deal of attention," added Dr. Iseman, "especially since the bacteria are so common.
 
"Most of us breathe in these bacteria all the time and never have any issues, but for those individuals who are vulnerable, it's deposited in their lungs and causes progressive areas of injury."
 
Researchers found that NTM patients were, on average, almost two inches taller, weighed nearly 35 pounds less, and had waists more than seven inches smaller than the average American woman of the same age. The NTM patients also more frequently had concave chests and scoliosis, suggesting underlying biological factors may account for why some people face greater risks.
 
"The immune response appears to be different in some tall, slender women than it is for most of us," said Dr. Iseman. "There are peculiarities in one of the lines of white blood cells responsible for fighting off diseases.  This could be an important clue as we look for new ways to treat these patients."
 
Once an NTM infection takes hold, treatment is often difficult, and involves long-term use of several antibiotics — lasting up to 18 months — or even surgery to remove diseased portions of the lung. Only about half the patients treated are cured, said Dr. Iseman.  
 
Doctors say those most at risk for NTM infections are people who have compromised immune systems. They may want to take extra precautions, including:
  • Periodically cleaning shower heads by soaking them in bleach or vinegar.
  • Taking baths instead of showers whenever possible.
  • Wearing breathing masks and gloves while gardening or doing yard work to minimize risk of infection with NTM bacteria found in soil.
Dr. Iseman said he hopes the new study will draw more attention to NTM, while the disease is still fairly uncommon.
 
"If it comes from water or soil, and it's rising in numbers, I think it presents a very formidable challenge for us," he added.

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