Nontuberculous Mycobacteria

Nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) is a group of bacteria, normally found in soil and water and some domestic and wild animals, that can cause severe lung disease. Although NTM naturally exists in the environment and doesn't affect most people, some develop an NTM infection when they inhale the bacteria in the air or water mist, or when they drink water containing NTM.

Each year in the United States, about two in every 100,000 people develop an NTM infection. Some people who are susceptible to the infection have an unknown defect in their lung structure or immune system, lung damage from a pre-existing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), such as emphysema and bronchiectasis, or an immune deficiency disorder, such as HIV or AIDS.

NTM does not cause tuberculosis (TB), and unlike TB, which is spread from person to person, NTM is not contagious.

Diagnosing NTM can be difficult because symptoms may be similar to other lung conditions. Pulmonologists (lung specialists) in the UCSF Chest Clinic are experts at diagnosing and treating the disease.

Although nontuberculous mycobacteria can affect all organs of the body, the condition primarily affects the lungs. Symptoms typically progress slowly and may include:

  • Blood in sputum (mucus and other matter brought up from the lungs, bronchi, and trachea)
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Lack of appetite
  • Loss of energy
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss

In making a diagnosis of nontuberculous mycobacteria, your doctor will first start by conducting a thorough physical examination, recording your medical history and asking about any symptoms you may be experiencing.

Diagnosing NTM may be difficult because symptoms often resemble those caused by other health conditions, such as tuberculosis (TB). If a patient does have NTM, it is important to determine which type of bacteria is causing the condition.

The following tests may be also be conducted to make a definite diagnosis:

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Treatment for nontuberculous mycobacteria will depend on the specific bacteria causing your infection. Treatment may be difficult because NTM bacteria may be resistant to many common types of antibiotics.

For some patients, the same drugs used to treat tuberculosis (TB) will be recommended.

To avoid becoming resistant to medications, you may take several types of antibiotics at the same time. These drugs may cause side effects and your doctor will monitor you closely during your treatment regimen. The length of treatment varies, depending on the severity of the disease.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.