It sounds terrifying: brain-eating amoeba. And it is.

Though infection from Naegleria fowleri amoeba is rare — only a few more than 130 confirmed cases since the 1950s — the pathogen can be found naturally in warm freshwater lakes, rivers and hot springs anywhere in the United States.

It's especially terrifying, though, when Naegleria fowleri is found in our water system. That was the case recently in Terrebonne Parish, Lousiana, where the amoeba was detected during a routine inspection by health officials, reports WDSU News.

A 60-day chlorine burn is scheduled for the district to purge the pathogen from the system. In the meantime, residents are being told that while their water remains safe for drinking, they should avoid allowing it to enter into their nose, as this is how the amoeba enters the brain. Residents should be cautious when washing their faces, such as when showering, bathing or cooling off in sprinkler systems or hoses.

The incident has even enraged famed consumer advocate Erin Brokovich, who recently wrote on her Facebook page: "You don't find it if you don't test for it ... has your water utility even tested, no because they are not required to? This is the THIRD community to discover deadly brain eating amoeba in their DRINKING WATER SYSTEM in weeks. When in the Hell is the USEPA Office of Drinking Water going to wake up and do something ... this IS NOT a CDC problem ... stop hiding out in your offices in Washington DC, get off your dead asses and get to work."

In the past, Naegleria fowleri has been known to infect some people who have used neti pots filled with contaminated tap water.

Though it doesn't technically "eat" the brain, the amoeba secretes destructive enzymes that cause a disease called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM, which leads to death in most sufferers. It begins with symptoms such as headache, fever, vomiting, seizures and hallucinations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only three people are known to have survived this condition.

The CDC recommends that people take the following actions to reduce their risk of infection:

  • Do not allow water to go up your nose or sniff water while bathing, showering or washing your face.
  • Do not jump into or put your head under bathing water.
  • Do not allow children to play unsupervised with hoses or sprinklers.
  • Do run bath and shower taps and hoses for five minutes before use to flush out pipes.
  • Do use only boiled and cooled, distilled or sterile water for making sinus rinse solutions for neti pots.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Deadly 'brain-eating' amoeba found in Louisiana water system
Contaminated water can pass through the nose to the brain, even in the shower.