WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9)--From the entertainment industry to the world of fashion, tall, thin women are often revered. Many see them as icons of health and style. However, when it comes to medicine, that's not always the case.

There's a new type of bacterial lung infection that's on the rise known as Nontuberculous Mycobacteria orNTM and it's primary target? Tall, thin women.

Several times a day Mary LouArea has to use a device to help clear her lungs.

In 2010she was diagnosed with NTM. While the disease isn't very common, the bacteria are found in everything from soil to shower heads. Which is how Mary Lou believes she got infected while coping with the loss of her mother.

"I would stand in the shower for hours. I really - you know, because when I'm upset, that's what I do. I take a hot, hot steamy shower," says Mary Lou.

But that may not be the only reason Mary Lou was infected. Doctors say even though she is otherwise healthy, she is tall and thin.

"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, they're not miners," says Dr. Michael Iseman a pulmonologist and expert on NTM and other lung diseases at National Jewish Health.

A recent study that appearsinthe publication of The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Careshows tall, thin women are at a greater risk for NTM. Dr. Iseman says there are some 30-thousand new cases of NTM a year. His study found most are women 2 inches taller, 35 pounds lighter and have a waist 7 inches smaller than normal. The NTM patients also more frequently had concave chests, a condition known as pectus excavatum, and scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.


Also says Dr. Iseman, "The immune response appears to be different in some tall, slender women than it is for most of us.There are peculiarities in one of the lines of white blood cells responsible for fighting off diseases. This could be an important clue as we look for new ways to treat these patients," he says. "And we believe that that's one of the features that makes some individuals, particularly slender women, more susceptible to the infection."

And once they get it, cure rates are low--only about 50-percent. That means despite leading a healthy lifestyle, some women like Mary Lou can face a lifetime of treatment.

NTM is in the same family as tuberculosis which is often cured within about 6 months. Patients with NTM on the other hand, often take several antibiotics for years-and some will require surgery to remove damaged portions of the lungs.


Doctors say those most at risk for NTM infections are patients who have compromised immune systems. They may want to take extra precautions, including:

  • Wearing breathing masks and gloves while gardening or doing yard work to minimize risk of infection with NTM bacteria found in soil.

  • Take baths instead of showers whenever possible

  • Periodically clean shower heads by soaking them in bleach or vinegar


Like tuberculosis (TB), a nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) infection also affects the lungs. Therefore, nontuberculous mycobacteria symptoms are similar. Most NTM infections and resulting symptoms progress slowly. Symptoms may include:

  • Fever

  • Weight loss

  • Cough

  • Lack of appetite

  • Night sweats

  • Blood in the sputum (phlegm)

  • Loss of energy
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