What you need to know about the brain-eating amoeba

Last Updated Aug 21, 2015 11:17 PM EDT

Naegleria fowleri, the so-called brain eating amoeba, has been blamed for three deaths so far this year in the United States. Now, health officials in Louisiana are keeping a close eye on two water systems that have tested positive for the parasite.

The amoeba is found in warm fresh water, such as lakes and rivers, but can also live in sediment.

Health officials say you can't get infected drinking contaminated water, but caution that you can get sick if the water goes up your nose and the amoeba reaches the brain.

"It can be forced up the nose, cross into the brain and begin to destroy brain tissue, unfortunately leading to death within a very short period of time," Dr. Jonathan Yoder an epidemiologist at the Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CBS News.

Infections from the amoeba are rare but almost always fatal.

Symptoms start off similar to many other, more common illnesses, such as bacterial meningitis, and include fever, headache, stiff neck, and vomiting. Experts urge people to seek medical attention immediately if they're experiencing these symptoms, particularly if they have been in warm fresh water recently.

Cases of the deadly amoeba have gotten widespread media attention, but the threat is extremely remote. Only 35 cases were documented between 2005 and 2014. In recent years, a new drug helped two people survive the devastating infection.

If you're worried, experts say there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk.

"They might decide not to go swimming in water that is warm and untreated or if they go swimming they might decide not to put their head under water," Yoder said. "Or not have water forced up their nose. If they wear nose clips, that might prevent some of that water being forced up."

For communities in Louisiana where the amoeba was detected in the water, the CDC recommends the following precautions:

  • DO NOT allow water to go up your nose or sniff water into your nose when bathing, showering, washing your face, or swimming in small hard plastic/blow-up pools.
  • DO NOT jump into or put your head under bathing water (bathtubs, small hard plastic/blow-up pools); walk or lower yourself in.
  • DO NOT allow children to play unsupervised with hoses or sprinklers, as they may accidentally squirt water up their nose. Avoid slip-n-slides or other activities where it is difficult to prevent water going up the nose.
  • DO run bath and shower taps and hoses for five minutes before use to flush out the pipes. This is most important the first time you use the tap after the water utility raises the disinfectant level.
  • DO keep small hard plastic/blow-up pools clean by emptying, scrubbing and allowing them to dry after each use.
  • DO use only boiled and cooled, distilled or sterile water for making sinus rinse solutions for neti pots or performing ritual ablutions.
  • DO keep your swimming pool adequately disinfected before and during use.
  • If you need to top off the water in your swimming pool with tap water, place the hose directly into the skimmer box and ensure that the filter is running. Do not top off the pool by placing the hose in the body of the pool.