How Do People Get Infected With Brain-Eating Amoeba?
The term "brain-eating amoeba" makes the amoeba sound like a tiny zombie stalking your skull. But brains are accidental food for them.
According to the CDC, N. fowleri normally eats bacteria. But when the amoeba gets into humans, it uses the brain as a food source.
The nose is the pathway of the amoeba, so infection occurs most often from diving, water skiing, or performing water sports in which water is forced into the nose. But infections have occurred in people who dunked their heads in hot springs or who cleaned their nostrils with neti pots filled with untreated tap water.
A person infected with N. fowleri cannot spread the infection to another person.
How Do Amoebas Get in the Brain?
Studies suggest that N. fowleri amoebas are attracted to the chemicals that nerve cells use to communicate with one another. Once in the nose, the amoebas travel through the olfactory nerve (the nerve connected with sense of smell) into the frontal lobe of the brain.
How Frequently Do People Get Infected by a Brain-Eating Amoeba?
Even though N. fowleri amoebas are relatively common, they only rarely cause brain disease. N. fowleri disease is known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). It occurs from zero to eight times a year, almost always from July to September.
It's considered a rare infection. But some cases may be unreported. A study in Virginia that looked at more than 16,000 autopsy records from patients who died of meningitis found five previously unreported cases of PAM.
Studies show that many people may have antibodies to N. fowleri. That suggests that they became infected with the amoeba but that their immune systems fought it off.
It's not at all clear whether N. fowleri is a rare infection that always causes PAM and is almost always fatal, or a more common infection that only sometimes causes PAM.
In a 2009 study, CDC researchers suggested that the common finding of antibodies to the amoeba in humans and the frequent finding of N. fowleri in U.S. waters indicates "that exposure to the amoeba is much more common than the incidence of PAM suggests."