(WFLX) - When it started, Mary Lou Area had been traveling back and forth to California to care for her dying mother. "The coughing kept getting worse where I would just cough up Kleenexes full of stuff," she said.
After weeks of coughing to the point of exhaustion, she went to see a specialist. He said, you may have this really weird thing.
The weird thing: Nontuberculoses mycobacterium complex or NTM. "I thought that's ridiculous," she said.
But it's real NTM often hits women around age 50, who are slim, Caucasian and otherwise in good health who also take showers.
"For a number of patients, I am absolutely persuaded that showers are the primary means by which they were infected," said Dr. Michael Iseman, who specializes in treating rare respiratory infections.
He's seeing a spike in the number of NTM cases. "We see hundreds, if not approaching a thousand, patients a year with this condition."
He's seen evidence showers are to blame.
We found more evidence linking showers to NTM at the lab of Professor Norman Pace at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "The stuff you see on this showerhead is bacteria," he said pointing to the sample. "NTM pulmonary disease is heavily under-diagnosed and probably more prevalent in the community than we think."
He and his students spearheaded a recent study that found 30 percent of shower heads harbor significant levels of disease-causing bacteria. "Nasty is the word. I'd throw this one away and get another one," he said looking at a shower head.
We brought our own shower heads for testing and saw plenty of potential for NTM. "These buildups that people usually think of as calcium deposits or soap scum, are really biological," said Pace.
In other words, this white stuff is encasing some bacteria that are living in there.
Pace says all of us are bathed in bacteria every day, most are harmless. But, in the shower, potentially harmful bacteria have a direct route to your respiratory system. "What that steam-like material is, is microscopic droplets of water and when you inhale those you are of course inhaling whatever is contained in the water," said Pace.
That includes bacteria breeding in your household pipes, where the water sits between uses. "I truly believe I got it from a showerhead," said Mary Lou. She said she often stood in a steaming hot shower for 30 minutes at a time before she was diagnosed.
She had a portion of her lung removed because of the disease and she'll also be taking antibiotics for years to come. "It's hard to enjoy your life when you feel not so hot," she said.
She's hoping someone will hear her story, get help and change their routine.
The physicians I talked with say removing and soaking your shower head with a germ-soaking agent will help. If they don't come clean throw them out and replace them.