A brain-eating amoeba has killed a person in Florida who used tap water to wash their sinuses

Illustration of a Naegleria fowleri amoeba.
The Naegleria fowleri, or “brain-eating ameba” kills over 97% of those infected.KATERYNA KON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images
  • A person in Florida has died after they were infected with a deadly single-celled organism.

  • The brain-eating amoeba destroys brain tissue and causes death in 97% of cases.

  • It's caught through the nose, not by drinking contaminated water.

A person in Florida has died after they were infected with a brain-eating amoeba after washing their sinuses with tap water, according to officials.

In a statement to Fox 4, a local news station in southwest Florida, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was told about the death caused by Naegleria fowleri — commonly known as a brain-eating amoeba — on February 20.

Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County said on February 23 it is investigating how the infection occurred and is working with the local public utilities to make any necessary changes.

The CDC statement said: "The adult patient reportedly performed nasal rinsing daily with unboiled tap water, which is thought to be the source of the infection."

Tap water in the area is still safe to drink as the amoeba — a single-celled organism — is rare and can only infect humans through the nose, the CDC said.

This is the first ever case of a person being infected with Naegleria fowleri through tap water in Florida, the agency told Fox 4. It said it's also the first reported case in the US this year, and the first in the winter.

"Most cases occur in southern-tier states during the summer, but evidence suggests that the geographical areas where Naegleria fowleri infections occur in the United States are changing, possibly due to climate change," the CDC said.

Early symptoms of a brain-eating amoeba include fever, nausea, and vomiting

In a press release on February 23, DOH-Charlotte told local residents to only use distilled or sterile water when making sinus rinse solutions, and to seek immediate medical assistance if they experience symptoms of a brain-eating amoeba such as: headaches, fever, nausea, disorientation, vomiting, a stiff neck, seizures, loss of balance, or hallucinations.

DOH-Charlotte said to not let water enter the nose when swimming, bathing, showering, or washing the face.

Naegleria fowleri enters the body through the nose, usually during diving or swimming

Naegleria fowleri infections are rare, with a  a total of 31 infections reported in the US between 2012 to 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Infections can happen when water containing the amoeba enters through the nose and travels up into the brain. This can happen when swimming or diving in fresh water lakes or when tap water containing the Naegleria fowleri enters the nose, such as when sinuses are cleaned.

The infection cannot be spread from person to person.

Naegleria fowleri infections cause what is known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis, an infection that destroys brain tissue, which is why it's called "brain-eating." The first symptoms of PAM happen one to 12 days after infection, and include headache, fever, nausea, or vomiting.

Naegleria fowleri infections are deadly in 97% of cases, the CDC said.

As PAM is rare and symptoms progress quickly, it can be hard to treat, the CDC said. Currently, infections are treated with a combination of drugs that have previously been successful on treating patients who survived.

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