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Beware this rare yet deadly danger lurking in freshwater lakes

It sounds like something out of a horror movie: A young child goes swimming in a Minnesota lake. The water is warm and inviting; it's the height of summer. At some point, perhaps while splashing around or doing cannonballs off the dock, a tiny amount of water goes up the child's nose. A week later, he's dead.

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In recent years, at least two children suffered that horrific fate after swimming in Stillwater's popular Lily Lake. The culprit? Naegleria fowleri - an amoeba that lives in freshwater lakes and rivers.

How the nightmarish illness unfolds

Human brain cells aren't typically on the amoeba's menu. But in rare cases - for reasons not well understood - the amoeba travels up the nose of an unlucky human and ends up in their brain, where it feasts on neurons.

The infection starts out with flu-like symptoms - headache, nausea, vomiting, fever, lethargy - but quickly progresses as the victim's condition deteriorates. Within a matter of days, the victim loses all brain function, and death soon follows.

Tips for reducing your risk

Millions of people swim in Minnesota lakes every summer and never contract this rare illness. Still, it's wise to exercise caution. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following steps to reduce your risk:

  • Avoid swimming in Lily Lake (in Stillwater), where two confirmed Minnesota cases have occurred
  • Avoid swimming in small lakes or ponds with warm, stagnant water
  • Wear nose plugs when swimming
  • Avoid getting water up your nose

Don't let fear ruin your summer. But at the same time, be aware of the risk - and educate others about it, too.

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