What is Mycobacterium Fortuitum?

B. Koch

Mycobacterium fortuitum is a nontuberculous mycobacterium, or NTM, that is found in many different environments around the world and is even found in most tap water. Although it is harmless to most healthy people, exposure does pose a threat of bacterial infection in immune-compromised individuals, or when the mycobacterium is found in abundance. Mycobacterium fortuitum has been known to infest warm water reservoirs, such as foot spas and has caused infections in users of pedicure foot spas.

Most tap water contains mycobacterium fortuitum.
Most tap water contains mycobacterium fortuitum.

Nontuberculous mycobacteria are bacteria that may cause disease but do not cause tuberculosis. They are typically rod-shaped and are known for rapid growth, especially in warm environments between 30-37 degrees Celsius (86-98.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Mycobacterium fortuitum is found worldwide in water, soil and air.

A pedicure infection may require a trip to the podiatrist.
A pedicure infection may require a trip to the podiatrist.

Although this bacteria is widespread, it is unusual for it to cause bacterial infection in humans, though it may occur. Individuals with compromised immune systems, if infected, may suffer from a number of complications, including skin infections, especially at surgical sites, as well as bone and joint disease. Lung infections are also possible, yet much less frequent. Infection does not spread from person to person but through direct contact with the bacteria from contaminated substances such as tap water.

Mycobacterium fortuitum can grow in hot tubs that have not been properly maintained.
Mycobacterium fortuitum can grow in hot tubs that have not been properly maintained.

Most frequently, mycobacterium fortuitum infections occur in hospital environments, and weak, immune-compromised patients are those most likely to suffer from this type of infection. Patients may develop a skin infection, especially at a surgical incision site. This area may become contaminated through exposure to tap water since even water that seems clean may contain mycobacterium fortuitum, although low levels are typically harmless to healthy individuals.

Mycobacterium fortuitum infections may occur at a surgical incision site.
Mycobacterium fortuitum infections may occur at a surgical incision site.

Although infections in non-immune compromised individuals are unusual, they do occur, especially when an individuals is exposed to high concentrations of the bacteria. Mycobacterium fortuitum has been known to cause pedicure infections due to infestations of the bacteria in whirlpool footbaths and foot spas. Since mycobacterium fortuitum thrives in warm environments, foot spas are at high risk of contamination if not carefully sanitized. When exposed to contaminated footbaths, some individuals develop lesions and boils on the lower legs that can usually be remedied with antibiotics.

Immunocompromised patients must take precautions to avoid opportunistic infections, including mycobacterium fortuitum.
Immunocompromised patients must take precautions to avoid opportunistic infections, including mycobacterium fortuitum.

Mycobacterium fortuitum exposure has also been known to come from infested hot tubs. Hot tubs that are not properly maintained to keep a regular pH and that are not kept clean become a breeding ground for bacteria. Not only may individuals suffer from lesions and boils, they may also suffer from lung disease if the bacteria is inhaled.

Mycobacterium fortuitum infections often occur in hospitals with patients who are already weak immune-compromised.
Mycobacterium fortuitum infections often occur in hospitals with patients who are already weak immune-compromised.

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