Everything You Need to Know About Texas' 'Brain-Eating' Amoeba Infections

Ah, summer! That wonderful time of year when the headlines start screaming about brain-eating amoebas.

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You know the drill – you see the article, get a little shiver down your spine, briefly consider a life without swimming, and then move on with your ice cream cone in hand. But this year, oh boy, it hit close to home. Some poor soul in Travis County got infected and chomped on by the amoeba Naegleria fowleri after a leisurely dip in Lake LBJ, according to this article.


Texas #1

Don't worry, Austinites, you're not alone in your paranoia. Austin is a city of swimmers, and with their scorching temperatures, they've been seeking refuge in the welcoming embrace of their numerous natural springs, pools, lakes, and rivers. It's like an oven out there, and a refreshing swim can make you forget that you're basically living in a convection oven.

So, as it turns out, Texas is the reigning champion in the brain-eating amoeba department, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We've had a whopping 40 cases since 1962. Well, that's something to put on the state's tourism brochures, isn't it?

What is this brain-eating amoeba, you ask?

Naegleria fowleri is a single-celled organism that enjoys hanging out in warm, fresh water and soil. And wouldn't you know it, Austin's weather has been hotter than a jalapeño in a Texas chili pot lately, providing the perfect breeding ground for this amoeba. So how does this delightful creature infect you? Well, it takes a leisurely stroll up your nose, through your nose bone (yes, you have a nose bone), and all the way up to your olfactory bulb – you know, the part of your brain that makes you go "Mmm, pizza!" From there, Naegleria fowleri starts a buffet on the cells of your olfactory bulb and the cortex of your brain. They don't call it a "brain-eating" amoeba for nothing!  


Now, the fun part. This infection is called primary amebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM for short. It's a real party in your brain, causing bleeding, swelling, and a delightful coma. Oh, and did I mention that over 97% of cases end in death? There are more survivors in a zombie apocalypse movie than in the world of PAM.

Symptoms start one to twelve days after exposure and include a pounding headache, fever, nausea, and vomiting. As PAM progresses, you might get to enjoy neck stiffness, seizures, hallucinations, and, of course, a coma. Death usually arrives fashionably late, anywhere from one to eighteen days after symptoms start.

Now, you might be thinking, "Hey, I've had a headache before, no biggie!" But here's the kicker: PAM shares symptoms with another buzzkill called bacterial meningitis, so it often gets misdiagnosed. And testing for Naegleria fowleri is about as slow as a sloth in a hurry, with no specific drugs to send this amoeba packing. So basically, by the time you realize what's happening, your brain has become a five-star buffet for this microscopic monster.

It's Everywhere

But hey, don't start packing your bags for a brain-eating amoeba-free zone just yet. Naegleria fowleri is everywhere, or so we're told. In fact, it's so common that the CDC advises against putting up warning signs. You know, because it might give swimmers the false impression that a body of water without a sign is free from the brain-eating brigade. So, just go ahead and jump in – what's the worst that could happen?

In reality, though, the good news is that PAM is about as rare as a unicorn sighting. Texas has been seeing zero, one, or two cases per year from 2010 to 2023, despite millions of people swimming in our fresh waters. It's like winning the lottery but in reverse.

Keep You HEad Up

So, how do you avoid becoming a snack for Naegleria fowleri? Well, the easiest way is to avoid going for a dip when it's hotter than the surface of the sun and water levels are low. Also, if you can, hold your nose, use nose clips, or better yet, just keep your head above water while swimming. And remember, kicking up the dirt at the bottom of shallow swimming areas is like ringing the dinner bell for these amoebas.

And here's a bonus tip: If you're into sinuses, avoid rinsing them with contaminated tap water for any reason. You never know when a rogue amoeba might be lurking in your H2O.

Now, the cherry on top of our already delightful sundae of information is that Naegleria fowleri might start spreading even farther north due to rising temperatures. So, thanks, global warming, for giving us a new reason to sweat buckets. Who knew that one day, October might become "peak" brain-eating amoeba season? It's like Christmas in July... and October.

But fear not, fellow swimmers! Prevention is the name of the game. Be cautious, and you'll still be able to enjoy the many wonders of Texas' fresh waters. Just remember, if you ever start craving brains, it might be time to get out of the water.


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