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 North America, 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. Pulmonary disease caused by NTM is most often seen in post-menopausal women.

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.

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

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Blood in the sputum
  • Loss of energy

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 need to take several types of antibiotics at the same time. These drugs may cause side effects. The length of treatment varies, depending on the severity of the disease.