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Doctors: NTM Infection Cases On The Rise

(CBS) -- Dangerous bacteria could be lurking in your shower head without you even knowing it.

CBS 2's Susan Carlson reports cases of chronic non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) infection have increased steadily in recent years, and unfortunately there's not much we can do to avoid it.

"I knew something was wrong, just because I was so exhausted all the time," said Elizabeth Gates.

She was already suffering from a chronic lung condition when last year things took a turn for the worse.

"I was also having night sweats, and I was coughing more," she said.

Gates was diagnosed with an NTM infection. Non-tuberculous mycobacteria are bacteria that can get in our lungs, and -- in some people -- cause a chronic infection.

Dr. Pamela McShane, a pulmonary and critical care physician at the University of Chicago, said, unfortunately, there's no way to avoid it completely, because it's everywhere -- from the ground to our water supply.

"When you take a hot tub, you're almost getting almost a direct concentration of steam of mycobacteria," she said.

For more information on NTM infections and NTM disease, click here.

A new study from the University of Colorado found NTM can fester in at least 30 percent of all shower heads. Cleaning them doesn't get rid of it.

"It's resistant to bleach, so you're really just making a nice concentrated mycobacteria there," McShane said.

Even when you drink filtered water from your refrigerator, you could still be swallowing this bacteria.

Many people can have it inside their system and not even realize it.

People like Gates who have chronic lung conditions -- such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) -- are more at risk. But not everyone who comes down with the infection has a pre-existing condition.

"Eighty percent of the people we see in clinic who have NTM disease are women," said Dr. James Cook, Director of Infectious Diseases at Loyola University Medical Center. "Nobody quite understands exactly why that is."

Cook said treatment "usually involves multi-drug therapy for at least a year, sometimes longer depending on how the results turn out."

Should people be scared to drink tap water?

"It gives you that sense initially," McShane said. "But really I don't think there should be a concern."

Cook added, "Ninety-five or plus percent of the time, nobody really has any idea where these infections come from, so trying to avoid the bacteria is not the answer."

Instead, doctors have said your best defense is simply to maintain a healthy lifestyle; that means eating foods rich in vitamins and antioxidants, staying fit, and getting plenty of sleep.

Meanwhile, patients cling to hope that a cure might be on the horizon.

"I'm hopeful every day that they'll find more things to treat it," said Gates. "So, just one day at a time."

NTM is not contagious. If you have COPD, or another risk factor, doctors suggest you stay out areas with intense exposures -- like hot tubs and steam rooms -- and avoid humidifiers.

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