If you’re diagnosed with nontuberculous mycobacterial lung disease, your doctor will discuss the right treatment for you.
Some people with NTM lung disease don’t need treatment. Others require ongoing treatments to keep their disease under control.
Treating a Mild Case
Your doctor may decide to watch and wait rather than treat your infection. She can check your symptoms and look at X-rays to make sure your lungs don’t start to show damage.
Why wouldn’t you want to treat your infection even if it’s mild? You’ll need to take antibiotics. They have side effects. And you’ll probably need more than one type because the bacteria often become resistant to drugs. Your doctor will weigh the pros and cons of treating your disease right away.
If your doctor does choose to treat it, you’ll take the medicine for a while. The doctor will run a sputum culture test every month or two to look for bacteria. You’ll cough up some mucus and she’ll send it to a lab for tests. You can stop taking the meds when the results have come back negative for a year.
Your doctor will decide which antibiotic to try first based on:
- The exact type of bacteria that caused your infection and how it reacts to different drugs
- Your age
- Your symptoms
- Your overall health
- Other medications you take
- How severe your disease seems to be
Most people with an NTM lung infection start with a combination of antibiotics that they take three times a week. You may have to change medications if the bacteria become resistant to your doctor’s first choice, but she has several options to choose from.
For MAC Infection
Doctors treat mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) disease, the most common NTM lung infection, with a combination of three antibiotics:
- Either azithromycin and clarithromycin
If you have more severe MAC disease that results from cavities in your lungs, your doctor may try rifabutin instead of rifampin. She might add amikacin or streptomycin three times a week early in your treatment.
If you have HIV, too, you’re at higher risk for disseminated MAC disease. It causes symptoms all over your body like night sweats, weight loss, fever, and anemia. To treat it, you’ll probably take azithromycin or clarithromycin to start. If they don’t help, the doctor will switch you to ethambutol with or without rifabutin. If your symptoms clear up or your immune system gets better, you can stop treatment.
If you have AIDS and CD4+ T-lymphocyte counts less than 50 cells/microliter, you can try to prevent disseminated MAC disease with azithromycin or clarithromycin. Rifabutin is another option, but it may be harder on your system.
Clinical trials are underway for a new type of drug to treat MAC-related NTM lung disease. Ask your doctor if this option could work for you.
For Other Bacteria
If you’re infection is from M. kansasii bacteria, you’ll probably take a mix of azithromycin, ethambutol, and rifampin once a day for 1 year or until your sputum test is negative.
If you have an M. abscessus lung infection, antibiotics alone may not work. Clarithromycin along with other drugs may help control your symptoms and keep the disease from getting worse. You might need surgery to remove damaged parts of your lung, too.
Watch for These Signs
All antibiotics for NTM lung disease have side effects. They can be hard on your liver or kidneys, cause hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in your ears), or severe upset stomach.
Your doctor may need to switch your medicines or lower your dose if one medicine causes a serious reaction. If you notice sudden problems with your hearing or eyesight, or pain or numbness in your hands or feet, call her right away.
Antibiotics alone may not clear up your infection or ease your symptoms. Some people also need surgery to take out damaged lung tissue.
Surgery along with antibiotics can clear up an NTM lung infection in many people.
But if you cough up blood after you’ve taken antibiotics, surgery may be a next step.
There are other things you can try to ease your symptoms and help clear up your infection. You don’t do them instead of your medicines, but as an add-on. Talk to your doctor first if you’d like to try any of these therapies:
- Nebulized hypertonic saline: A machine called a nebulizer sprays sterile, salty water into your airways to help clear mucus from your lungs.
- High-frequency chest wall oscillation: This device loosens mucus in your lungs.
- Physical therapy
- Huff cough, a technique to clear out the gunk
You can also:
- Get some aerobic exercise. Walking will do.
- Eat healthy food.
- Keep your weight in check.
Once you treat your NTM lung disease, you can take steps to prevent another infection. These bacteria are often found in water or moist places, so take these easy steps:
- Avoid hot tubs or spas. If you have a hot tub, make sure it’s outside your house.
- Don’t use unfiltered tap water in room humidifiers or CPAP machines for sleep apnea.
- Install a water filtration system in your home.
- Don’t take long, hot showers.
- Boil tap water before you drink it.
Lung disease symptoms and the treatments for them may make you feel awful at times. At any point in your life with lung disease, ask your doctor about palliative care to help you feel more comfortable.
Palliative care is any treatment that helps to ease symptoms or just make you feel better. You may need oxygen therapy to help you breathe more easily, take meds for your upset stomach, or see a counselor to deal with stress.
Counseling or support groups of other people with lung disease can help you manage depression or anxiety. Check out groups in your area or online. Let your doctor know if your lung disease makes you feel depressed or hopeless, so you can get treatment right away.