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What Is NTM lung disease?

Nontuberculous mycobacterial (NTM) lung disease is a serious infection caused by bacteria that are common in the environment and can cause lung damage. They are aerosolized, which means that the bacteria can exist in water and soil particles that are in the air. People can get NTM lung disease when they breathe in the bacteria. Everyone comes into contact with NTM bacteria during their daily lives. However, not everyone is at risk of getting NTM lung disease. Those with underlying lung conditions like bronchiectasis, COPD, and asthma are at greater risk.

Water droplet containing aerosolized NTM bacteria

There are many species of NTM. Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) is the most common, accounting for 80% of all NTM lung disease cases in the US.

80% MAC on clipboard

NTM lung disease can make you sick and cause you to experience symptoms, like coughing, fatigue, and shortness of breath. People can have NTM for months, sometimes years, without knowing it because symptoms are similar to other lung conditions.

If ignored, your symptoms can worsen. An NTM infection can cause permanent damage to your lungs over time if left untreated.

Lungs with NTM bacteria inside

How NTM Affects You

Take a closer look at how people living with lung conditions like bronchiectasis, COPD, or asthma can become infected with NTM lung disease.

Shedding light on NTM video will help you learn about adult NTM causes

Although the number of people diagnosed grows every year, many people who have it may not even know it. That’s because the symptoms of NTM lung disease are similar to the symptoms of other lung conditions, like bronchiectasis, COPD, and asthma.

Lungs with exclamation point

People who have bronchiectasis, COPD, and asthma are at greater risk of getting NTM lung disease. Why? Because the damage in their lungs caused by other lung conditions makes them more vulnerable to infection. Sometimes people can get infected if they have had severe or chronic pneumonia.

Person with NTM bacteria around other people

While the symptoms of NTM and tuberculosis, or TB, can be nearly identical and can look very similar in test results, NTM and TB are very different diseases. TB is contagious and can be spread from person to person, and NTM is not considered to be contagious.

Ask about NTM lung disease—Think you may have NTM lung disease? Download this discussion guide to help start a conversation about NTM with your doctor.

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Discussion Guide

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NTM in the Environment

NTM bacteria are common in the environment. People can come into contact with NTM bacteria through simple, daily activities, such as showering or gardening.

Adult NTM facts: You can come into contact with NTM bacteria through daily activities

NTM can live in water and soil particles which can become aerosolized, allowing the bacteria to be breathed in.

Everyone comes into contact with NTM bacteria during their daily lives. However, not everyone is at risk of getting NTM lung disease. Most people do not become infected because their lungs are healthy and can clear NTM bacteria.

The bacteria can be found in places such as:

Adult NTM causes: Tap water with NTM bacteria

Tap water

Adult NTM causes: Showerheads with NTM bacteria

Showerheads

Adult NTM causes: Steam with NTM bacteria

Steam from
tubs and showers

Adult NTM causes: Dishwashing mist with NTM bacteria

Mist from the water
used to wash dishes

Adult NTM causes: Soil with NTM bacteria

Soil from parks, gardens,
and environment

About NTM: NTM bacteria were in 8 out of 10 water samples

One study across 25 states showed that NTM bacteria were found in nearly 8 out of 10 water samples.

Recognizing the Symptoms of NTM

The symptoms of NTM lung disease are similar to other lung conditions. So similar, in fact, that NTM is sometimes misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. Many people have symptoms, but may think it’s due to a lung condition they already have. People can have NTM for months, sometimes years, without knowing it.

If you live with a lung condition, like bronchiectasis, COPD, or asthma, you know what your symptoms typically feel like. So how can you tell if it’s NTM and not just your current lung condition acting up?

Well, the truth is, it’s very difficult. However, NTM lung disease has key symptoms that often get worse over time and don’t go away. For example, your cough can get worse, you can feel out of breath easily, and you can feel tired often – like your “get up and go” got up and went. These symptoms could be a sign that you have NTM lung disease. You may notice these symptoms come and go. You may have them every day. Each case of NTM is different.

If you have NTM lung disease, you may experience one or several of 
these common signs and symptoms. Click each one to learn more:

Coughing

Adult NTM symptom: Coughing

It may be a chronic cough that you can’t get rid of, like a “coughing fit” or a cough that comes and goes. You may have a cough that:

  • is dry
  • brings up mucus
  • keeps you up at night
  • brings up blood

If you are coughing up blood, call or visit your doctor right away

TROUBLE BREATHING/ SHORTNESS OF BREATH

Adult NTM symptom: Shortness of breath

When everyday activities, like walking your dog or climbing stairs, leave you short of breath, with a wheeze, or with tightness in your chest

Feeling Tired
Often

Adult NTM symptom: ZZZ (being tired all the time)

Feeling tired or exhausted often, making it hard to do daily activities

Weight loss and/or
lack of appetite

Scale

Sudden, unexplained weight loss and/or when you don’t feel like eating

LOW-GRADE FEVER

Thermometer

A slight fever that
may also include night sweats and chills

Recurring
infection

NTM bacteria with circular arrows indicating recurrence

If you keep getting
a lung infection
or pneumonia

Symptoms that do not get better despite medicine

NTM medicine bottle

You may have taken medications for other
lung conditions over a long period of time. But despite taking medicine, you
keep getting sick

If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor about whether or not you should get tested for NTM lung disease.

Worsening symptoms

If you have a lung condition, NTM bacteria can aggravate and make it worse. This can cause harm to your lungs over time. Worsening symptoms may also be a sign that you have an NTM infection. That’s why it’s important to get checked by your doctor if you feel your symptoms are not going away, or are getting worse.

Red triangle with exclamation point

If you have BRONCHIECTASIS
and NTM:
Your symptoms, like a cough, may get worse and you could find yourself using airway clearance techniques more often

If you have
COPD and NTM:
You may experience more flare-ups, difficulty breathing, and you may have a harder time catching your breath

If you have
ASTHMA and NTM:
You may experience more flare-ups and have a much harder time catching your breath

Does it sound like you could have NTM lung disease? People like you have shared their stories in hopes of spreading more awareness about this disease.

Watch real people tell their stories about NTM lung disease