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Florida man dies from brain-eating amoeba, possibly after rinsing nose with tap water, health officials say

Such infections are very rare, and people cannot be infected by drinking tap water, state health officials in Charlotte County said.
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A man in Florida died from a brain-eating amoeba that he may have contracted after he rinsed his sinuses with tap water, health officials said.

The state Health Department in Charlotte County said in a Feb. 23 news release that it is continuing to investigate the cause of the Naegleria fowleri infection. The patient has not been publicly identified.

N. Fowleri is a single-celled organism that can be found in soil and freshwater around the world. It likes heat and grows best at high temperatures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so infections are most commonly reported in the summer. Most come from swimming in warm lakes or rivers.

Overall, such infections are very rare, arising only when contaminated water enters through the sinuses.

“You CANNOT be infected by drinking tap water,” the Health Department emphasized in its statement.

Amebic meningoencephalitis
A case of amebic meningoencephalitis due to Naegleria fowleri parasites as seen using the direct fluorescent antibody staining technique.Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

The agency urged members of the public to use distilled or sterile water they rinse their sinuses, a practice that typically involves neti pots.

"Tap water should be boiled for at least 1 minute and cooled before sinus rinsing," the release said.

There were three confirmed cases of N. fowleri last year, according to the CDC, which occurred after exposure to freshwater in Iowa, Nebraska and Arizona. Three cases were also reported each year in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The patient in last year's Iowa case was a Missouri resident who got infected after having swum in the Lake of Three Fires in Taylor County in June. The Iowa lake was temporarily closed after the patient was diagnosed.

In Nebraska, a child in Douglas County went swimming in the Elkhorn River in August and was subsequently hospitalized. The patient died within 10 days of becoming infected.

Symptoms of an N. fowleri infection include headaches, fever, nausea, loss of balance, disorientation, seizures and a stiff neck. The disease progresses quickly after symptoms start, and patients usually die within 18 days or less.