IMG_0579A few days ago, a brain-eating amoeba (Naegleria fowleri amoeba ) claimed the life of a young Ohio woman after she went whitewater rafting at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The threat is not the Whitewater Center—but any body of fresh water during a time of excess heat.

In 2007, I wrote the following article after a teen died after swimming in my hometown lake—Lake Havasu. I’m not bringing back the article to scare anyone—but to help educate people, especially as our country experiences record heat. Understanding the threat can help keep us safe while we cool off in fresh water lakes this summer.

Naegleria Amoeba

How we can keep future swimmers safe in Lake Havasu

In the recent news has been the tragic story of a young Lake Havasu teen who died, suffering from a deadly infection of  Naegleria fowleri, a free-living amoeba which is commonly found in warm water lakes.

We’ve received a few calls and emails asking us if it is dangerous to swim in Lake Havasu, and wondering if they should find a new fresh water lake.  Our answer, if you want to avoid the Naegleria fowleri completely, then avoid ALL warm water lakes, hot springs, ponds, rivers, and a few swimming pools.

Of course, that is a bit drastic, and according to information from the experts, unnecessary.  Yes, you CAN swim safely in Lake Havasu and other warm bodies of water, but there are some things you need to know.

First, in spite of the fact the Naegleria fowleri is found world wide, including a majority of the fresh water lakes across the United States, incidents of infections are extremely rare. According to one source, only 23 cases in the United States were documented between 1995 and 2004.

Naegleria Amoeba isn’t Confined to a Particular Local

This amoeba is commonly found in warm, shallow and stagnate water.  How warm is warm? 80 degrees and higher is the temperature reported in articles I’ve read.

Yet, simply swimming in warm water is not enough to cause a problem.  The amoeba needs to enter the body through the nose, and according to the literature, it needs to enter the nose via a violent water stream, such as diving.

The fact is, no matter where you are, if the water is very warm, is not moving, and shallow, there are going to be some unpleasant things growing.  Simple biology.

I don’t like to dunk my head under water, yet if kids are insisting they want to do some violent slashing, I would find cooler waters (which is even possible in Havasu during the warmer months, by simply changing locations), or have them wear a nose clip.

Yet, going under the water is not enough to be infected.  Normally, the amoeba needs to be forcefully inserted up the nose, either by diving into the water or some other means.

What about waterskiing if you take an unexpected wipe out?  Normally we ski in cooler and deeper waters, where the amoeba is not typically found.

Protect Yourself through Education

Bottom line, I believe it is important to understand possible dangers, learn about the threat, and then take steps in prevention.

I know the father of the young teen who died stated he would never let his children swim in Lake Havasu again.  I understand his feelings. If my child drowned in a particular swimming pool or body of water, I would never want to see that body of water ever again.

This particular threat, although extremely rare, is not unique to Lake Havasu.  If our goal is to protect our families, we need to take certain precautions when visiting any fresh water lake or other bodies of water.  In Havasu the weather is already cooling, which means our water temperatures are also dropping.  But next summer, when those water temperatures get above 80 degrees, we should be wearing a nose clip if we want to swim with our heads under water or do any major cannon ball jumping.

What do experts have to say on this issue? According to a recent quote by Dr. Rebecca Suneshine, deputy state epidemiologist of the Arizona Department of Health, “I would swim in Lake Havasu…and I would let my children swim there.” She went on to say the infection was incredibly rare.

Bobbi Holmes, October 5, 2007

5 comments on “Life threatening dangers of swimming during times of excessive heat: Naegleria fowleri amoeba

  1. Tom O'Leary

    I’ve read several articles and done sum research on lake Havasu..
    Summer time the heat in the LHC lake area is very hot..
    So definitely a danger in that respect..
    But at all times of the year you have algee..
    Which comes up off the bottom of the lake in the shallows..
    I’ve been coming hear for a number of years now..
    Winter and summer..
    I’ve experienced an ear infection the last couple of years.
    I was to believe it was from camping in the desert.
    Due to the wind that blows..kicking up dust and sand etc etc..
    But apon further research..
    I’m beginning to believe it’s caused due to me swimming almost daily in LHC..
    One of the main reasons I come here..
    Research for your self.
    Things like.
    Where does LHC get there drinking water.?
    Where does the sewage go..
    What can breed in the water and be there year round..?
    Is there a situation caused due to boats / and other water craft used in this lake..?
    Remember.. this a lake.
    The water isn’t draining at a constant flow like a river..
    I have noticed there’s a big sign at Waters edge that lights up and flashes.
    That warns people not to go in the lake due to excess amounts of contamination..
    Mostly due to water craft..I thinx.??
    Just FYI..
    To each his own..
    Thanx you very much.
    I hope this helps in sum small way..??

    1. Bobbi Holmes Post author

      Our family first moved to Lake Havasu over fifty years ago. Growing up, I spent most of my days on the lake. In fact, when I was in high school, I drove a boat to school each day—by myself.

      Lake Havasu is a water reservoir, providing drinking water for Southern California. It’s actually a very clean lake. While there might be some areas—like perhaps in the Channel where you get a high concentration of boats and people in a smaller area that might cause some issues—overall I believe it is a clean lake.

      As for the deadly Naegleria fowleri amoeba, that can happen ANYWHERE when two conditions are present:
      1. Excessive heat
      2. Stagnant water

      It’s certainly not an issue unique to Havasu, nor is it not something that should keep swimmers out of the lake. People just need to be smart about it.

      When water temperature in any body of water exceeds 80 degrees, avoid certain activities in the back coves, where there is still or stagnate water. Those would include letting your kids do cannon balls, diving, or taking them skiing and tubing through those stagnate areas, for risk they be thrown off and into the water.

      From what I have read, swimming alone in hot stagnate water is not the risk, it is having the water violently shoved up your ears.

      1. PC

        Why would motor boats be allowed on any fresh water lake, esp. Drinking Water. Electric motors have been around for a long time.

        1. Bobbi Holmes Post author

          Lake Havasu supplies water to several states. And there have always been motorboats allowed on it. Not uncommon. But the amoeba is an issue unrelated to boats. Heat and stagnate water. Actually, the motor boats stirring up the water might be a good thing.

      2. Dane

        Lake Havasu literally sits on a river the colorado river which opens their dams everyday which flows . It may be a called lake havasu but its not a lake in reality its the colorado river dammed up like the rest of it all the way to the Rockies.

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