What Is NTM?

Nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) is an infection that occurs in your lungs. This infection is caused by bacteria. You can get NTM when you breathe the bacteria in through your nose and mouth. The bacteria live in water droplets and the air.

NTM is a lung infection

NTM can make you sick and cause you to experience symptoms like coughing, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Over time, your symptoms can get worse. In some cases, an NTM infection can cause severe, even permanent damage to the lungs.

NTM can cause damage to the lungs

How NTM Affects You

You may have never heard of an NTM lung infection before. That's because it is a rare disease. Although the number of people diagnosed with NTM grows every year, many people who have it may not even know it. That’s because the symptoms of an NTM lung infection are very similar to some of the symptoms of other lung conditions, like bronchiectasis, COPD, and asthma. So similar, in fact, that NTM is sometimes misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. People can have NTM for years, without knowing it. Many people have symptoms, but think it’s due to a lung condition they already have.

NTM causes lung damage

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

NTM is sometimes called a “cousin” of tuberculosis, or TB. That’s because symptoms can be nearly identical and in test results they can look very similar, even though they are very different diseases. TB is contagious and can be spread from person to person. NTM is not considered contagious.

NTM and Tuberculosis

NTM in the Environment

NTM bacteria are common in the environment and found all around. NTM is aerosolized, which means they live in water particles that float in the air and are breathed in.

NTM bacteria through showering or gardening

People can come into contact with NTM bacteria through simple, daily activities, such as showering or gardening.

Everyone comes into contact with NTM bacteria during their daily lives. However, not everyone is at risk of getting NTM. Most people can get rid of NTM bacteria without medicine, and do not become infected.

The bacteria can be found in:

NTM bacteria in tap water

Tap water

NTM bacteria in showerheads

Showerheads

NTM bacteria in hot tub and shower steam

Steam from hot
tubs and showers

NTM bacteria in dishwater mist

Mist from the water
used to wash dishes

NTM bacteria in park and garden soil

Soil from parks
and gardens

NTM bacteria in 8 out of 10 drinking water

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

Recognizing the Symptoms of NTM

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

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 has key symptoms that often get worse over time. 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 an NTM lung infection. You may notice these symptoms come and go. Maybe you have them every day. Each case of NTM is different.

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

Coughing

NTM causes 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

NTM causes Trouble breathing

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

NTM causes you to feel tired

Feeling tired or exhausted often, making it hard to “get up and go” and do daily activities

Weight loss and/
or lack of appetite

NTM causes weight loss, lack of appetite

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

Fever

NTM causes fever

A slight fever that
may also include night sweats and chills

Recurring
infection

NTM causes recurring infection

If you keep getting
a lung infection
or pneumonia

Taking medicine
over a long
period of time

NTM causes you to take medicine over a long period of time

You may have taken medications for other
lung infections, but you
keep getting sick

If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor about whether or not you may be suffering from an NTM lung infection.

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.

Warning for NTM and other lung infections

If you have BRONCHIECTASIS
and NTM:
Your symptoms, like a cough, may get worse and you could find yourself using clearance devices 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 an NTM lung infection? People just like you have shared their stories in hopes of spreading more awareness about this rare disease.

Watch real people and their
stories about NTM