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Is Your Shower Making You Sick?

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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – A hot, steamy shower can feel great, but you may be getting covered in a daily dose of bacteria that could make you sick.

Take off any showerhead and you can see the bacteria. It’s called nontuberculous mycobacteria, or NTM.

Dallas resident Nancy Harris was exposed to the bacteria.  She was already diagnosed with emphysema when she learned she also had NTM. “I didn’t have the strength I normally had and I had trouble breathing,” says Harris. “A lot of coughing. A lot of coughing up spewdom.”

“The organism enters the lungs, usually the patients present with weakness, persistent cough, they have night sweats, their oxygen, CO2 is very weak,” says Dr. Joseph Falkinham, a biology professor with Virginia Tech.

And Baylor Medical Center pulmonologist Dr. Mark Millard says we’re surrounded by the bacteria which thrives in warm and moist places, like shower heads and hot tubs.

“Just when you thought it was safe to go to sleep at night, take a shower, enjoy your own hot tub, well no, we find there’s something else lurking in the dark,” says Dr. Millard.

As our household water became cleaner over the years – most bacteria were killed off.  But NTM bacteria have proven extraordinarily resilient.  And we’re surrounded by the organisms.  You can find them in showers, bath water, we even drink them and cook with them.

But not to worry.

“Your drinking water is okay,” says Dr. Millard. “When it comes out of a shower head and aerosolizes. So maybe don’t take a deep breath in the shower. I’m not going to recommend that. It’s good to breathe.”

Researchers at the University of Colorado found that up to 30% of shower heads are contaminated with the bacteria.

But Dr. Millard points out the majority of people never get NTM.  The ones who do tend to have a history of lung and bronchial problems or compromised immune systems.  And while NTM can be fatal, it is treatable.

Nancy Harris has been taking medication for the past year and will soon find out if she’s completely clear of the disease.  And when that happens, she plans to celebrate.  “If my last culture comes back negative, I’ll probably have a sizeable party at my home.”

Many people with NTM are often misdiagnosed because it mimics so many other diseases, including tuberculosis and even lung cancer.

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