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Deadly Skin Infections Linked to Aquariums Often Overlooked

Update Date: Oct 06, 2013 08:59 PM EDT

Deadly skin infections caused by exposure to contaminated water in home aquariums are greatly under-diagnosed, according to new research.

Researchers explain that diagnosing and managing Mycobacterium marinum infection is difficult because skin lesions don't show up for two to four weeks after exposure. This often leads to delayed treatment and ineffective use of antifungal and antibacterial agents.

Another common reason is that patients often fail to remember the source of the exposure, which is often traced to them cleaning their aquarium. People often get infected when the bacteria in non-chlorinated water seep into open skin wounds on the arm or hand.

"People just don't know or think about their fish tank harboring this bacterial organism," lead researcher Dr. George Alangaden, M.D., a Henry Ford Infectious Diseases physician, said in a news release.

"And unless they're directly questioned about it by their physician, who may or may not have adequate knowledge of Mycobacterium marinum and its prolonged incubation period, appropriate treatment often gets delayed," he explained.

The latest study, which was conducted between January 2003 and March 2013, involved five patients aged 43 to 72.  The patients went to the hospital with mysterious reddish skin lesions or bumps on the hands or arms. Tests later confirmed that the patients were infected with Mycobacterium marinum.

While all patients in the study responded well to antibiotic treatment, researchers stressed that it took on average an overwhelming 161 days from time of initial presentation to time of treatment.

"Mycobacterium marinum is not a life-threatening illness, but it remains an unrecognized cause of skin infection," said Alangaden . "To accelerate diagnosis and treatment, physicians are encouraged to ask detailed questions about the patient's history, especially questions about potential exposure to aquariums."

The study will be presented Saturday at the Infectious Diseases Society of America's annual meeting in San Francisco.

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