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Lake LBJ swimmer dies from rare amebic infection

Lake LBJ

The constant-level Lake LBJ has become relatively stagnant due to a lack of flow from the Colorado River. Combined with high temperatures, the lake's condition might have contributed to the death of a Travis County resident, who contracted a rare infection after swimming in LBJ in August. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

A Travis County resident died after swimming in Lake LBJ earlier in August and then developing an illness caused by a rare amebic meningitis infection. Austin health officials are cautioning swimmers about the potential for the uncommon, yet dangerous, infection due to high water temperatures and little to no water movement over the hot, dry summer.

“Although these infections are very rare, this is an important reminder that there are microbes present in natural bodies of water that can pose risks of infection,” Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a media release. “Increased temperatures over the summer make it ideal for harmful microorganisms to grow and flourish.”

The Travis County victim’s exact swimming location on Lake LBJ was not released.

Primary amebic meningoencephalitis is contracted when a specific amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, enters the body through the nose and begins destroying brain tissue, leading to a deadly infection. The infection is incredibly rare, with only 39 known cases in Texas over the past 60 years. 

The amoeba thrives in freshwater with temperatures ranging from 80 degrees to 115 degrees, which applies to many bodies of water across Texas during July, August, and September. The surface temperature of lakes LBJ, Buchanan, and Travis currently fall within the amoeba’s desired temperature range, according to stats from the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Health officials recommend the following to reduce the chance of an amebic infection:

While swimming in warm freshwater, limit the amount of water going up your nose. Hold your nose shut, use nose clips, or keep your head above water when taking part in warm freshwater-related activities. 

Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperatures and low water levels. 

Avoid digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas. 

The amoeba can only be contracted through the nose, not by swallowing water. Symptoms of the infection might appear between one and 12 days after the amoeba enters the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Early symptoms include:

  • headache
  • fever
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Late-stage symptoms include:

  • stiff neck
  • altered mental state (confusion)
  • lack of attention to people and surroundings
  • seizures
  • hallucinations
  • coma