PhotoTwo people have died in Louisiana in recent months from a rare brain-eating amoeba that health officials have traced to a common cold treatment.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals says a 51-year old woman died after using tap water in a neti pot to irrigate her sinuses and becoming infected with the deadly amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri. The pot creates steam, which is supposed to open up and sooth clogged sinuses. 

In June, a 20-year-old St. Bernard Parish, La., man died under the same circumstances. Naegleria fowleri infects people by entering the body through the nose. The problem occurred, in this case, when the water was converted to steam.

"If you are irrigating, flushing, or rinsing your sinuses, for example, by using a neti pot, use distilled, sterile or previously boiled water to make up the irrigation solution," said Louisiana State Epidemiologist, Dr. Raoult Ratard. "Tap water is safe for drinking, but not for irrigating your nose."

It's also important to rinse the irrigation device after each use and leave it open to air dry.

Infection enters through the nose

Naegleria fowleri infection typically occurs when people go swimming or diving in warm freshwater lakes and rivers.

In very rare instances, Naegleria fowleri infections may also occur when contaminated water from other sources, such as inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or heated tap water less than 116.6 degrees Fahrenheit, enters the nose when people submerge their heads or when people irrigate their sinuses with devices such as a neti pot. You cannot be infected with Naegleria fowleri by drinking water.

Naegleria fowleri causes the disease primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a brain infection that leads to the destruction of brain tissue. In its early stages, symptoms of PAM may be similar to symptoms of bacterial meningitis.

Initial symptoms of PAM start one to seven days after infection. The initial symptoms include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, and stiff neck. Later symptoms include confusion, lack of attention to people and surroundings, loss of balance, seizures, and hallucinations. After the start of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within one to 12 days.

Naegleria fowleri infections are very rare. In the 10 years from 2001 to 2010, 32 infections were reported in the U.S.  

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