Mary Lou Area was the picture of health, with the lifestyle to match.
“I was a vegetarian, and I was an avid tennis player, walked every day," said Area. "I was really a healthy person."
But that changed when she developed a horrible cough.
“I started coughing, and it was just unbelievable, the coughing," said Area. "I mean just gagging coughing.”
Area was diagnosed with nontuberculous mycobacteria or NTM.
While the disease isn’t very common, the bacteria are. They're found in many places including soil and shower heads.
Area believes she got infected while coping with the loss of her mother.
“I would stand in the shower for hours," said Area. "When I’m upset, that’s what I do. I take a hot, hot steamy shower."
Area is also tall and thin, and a recent study suggests that may have put her at increased risk for NTM.
Dr. Michael Iseman is an expert on NTM and other lung diseases at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado. He said there are some 30,000 new cases of NTM a year. His study found many are in women 2 inches taller, 35 pounds lighter and with a waist 7 inches smaller than average.
"It is striking that it tends to be women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, most of them have led blameless lives. They aren’t cigarette smokers," said Iseman.
Iseman found that the immune system in these women is slightly different than normal.
"Beginning with the slender body type of some of these women, we looked at features of their immunity, and it’s been very interesting to see that there are peculiarities of one of the lines of white blood cells that’s responsible for immunity,” said Iseman. “And we believe that that’s one of the features that makes some individuals, particularly slender women, more susceptible to the infection."
NTM is in the same family as tuberculosis, which is often cured within about six months. However, experts said the cure rate for NTM is only about 50 percent and many patients need antibiotic treatment for years. Some, like Area, require surgery to remove damaged portions of the lungs.
"With my one lung, there was an area that wasn’t clearing up, and so they decided that really it was best if they could go in and take that area out, and it would give me a chance to be off antibiotics," said Area.
Experts said patients with weakened immune systems may want to wear gloves and a mask while gardening and clean their shower head periodically to reduce the risk of NTM. Soaking shower heads in bleach or vinegar can help eradicate bacteria that could pose a risk of NTM.
To learn more about NTM, click here.