What is Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM)?

ntm, bronchiectasisNontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM) are organisms that naturally occur in water and soil.1 When people inhale NTMs, the bacteria travels to their lungs and it could potentially cause a respiratory infection in susceptible individuals. Though most people naturally clear NTMs from their lungs and avoid any serious pulmonary damage, NTM lung infections still affect more than 80,000 people in the United States—with the majority of people being over the age of 65.2

As with any pulmonary condition, those diagnosed with an NTM lung infection will need to make certain modifications to their lifestyle and will require the support and encouragement of loved ones to find the best treatment plan to relieve symptoms and enjoy a better quality of life. It’s important to understand how NTM affects the lungs and its relationship to other lung diseases, such as COPD and bronchiectasis. Read on to find the resources and information you need to make educated decisions about your health or the wellness of a loved one living with NTM.

 

What Are the Symptoms of NTM?

ntm, bronchiectasisAccording to the NTM Info & Research (NTMir) organization, NTM lung infections may cause individuals to experience the following symptoms:

  • Frequent Cough
  • Night Sweats & Fever
  • Weight Loss 
  • Changes in Appetite
  • Low Energy Levels
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest Pain

Many of these symptoms share common characteristics with other pulmonary conditions, such as bronchiectasis, COPD, and cystic fibrosis, so it’s not surprising that these conditions are also linked as underlying causes of NTM lung infections.3

 

Is NTM Contagious?

Though more common in adults over 65, NTM lung infections can affect individuals of any age group: There are more than 140 identified species of NTM. The species most often associated with NTM lung infections include M. avium, M. abscessus, M. chelonae, M. kansasii, and M. fortuitum. 

As noted earlier, some people can naturally clear their lungs of this particular strain of bacteria, unless they are already living with a pulmonary condition that weakens their lungs, or they have a weakened immune system as a result from conditions like Sjogren’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis.4 It’s believed NTM cannot pass from one individual to another.5 However, doctors recommend that people living with cystic fibrosis take extra precautions to ensure NTMs and other bacteria are not passed to friends or loved ones.6

 

How is NTM Treated?

There are several ways to treat NTM lung infections depending on severity and if you’re living with a chronic pulmonary condition like bronchiectasis or COPD. Your prescriber may recommend one or a combination of the following treatments:

ntm, bronchiectasis

Antibiotic Regime:

According to NTMir, your doctor may prescribe you a combination of antibiotics (3-4 medications at a time) to effectively treat a particular strain of the infection. For more information on the types of medications used to help treat NTM, visit their website

ntm, bronchiectasisAirway Clearance Therapy:

To help prevent mucus build up, your doctor may recommend airway clearance via a respiratory vest or manual chest physiotherapy. This type of therapy works to help break the cycle of mucus build up and helps to loosen mucus, so it’s more easily coughed out, reducing the onset of inflammation and infection in the lungs. 

ntm, bronchiectasisSurgery:

According to NTMir, your doctor may recommend surgery if your lung infection is concentrated in one specific area or is causing severe damage to one of your lobes. Surgery is typically a last resort and is usually recommended after a patient has already undergone standard antibiotic therapy with little to no success.

 

How Serious is NTM?

When left untreated, NTMs can progress and affect a person’s airways and lung tissue, causing respiratory infection. According to the CHEST Foundation, “NTM lung infections can become chronic and require ongoing treatment. Severe NTM lung disease can affect a person’s quality of life. Serious health complications directly related to NTM lung disease is uncommon.”7 As with any lung condition, the earlier therapy is introduced, the higher the success rate is for managing your individual condition.

 

ntm, bronchiectasisWhat is the Bronchiectasis and NTM Initiative?

For people living with bronchiectasis and NTM, the Bronchiectasis and NTM Initiative is an organization that works to help patients connect, interact, and receive educational resources on their pulmonary conditions to help them live each day better. As an online community, the Bronchiectasis and NTM Initiative also strives to develop research programs that help accelerate effective treatment and cures for bronchiectasis, which today remains an irreversible chronic lung condition and an underdeveloped area of study.  

Partnering with other organizational leaders in the respiratory field, including the COPD Foundation, this initiative offers support and encouragement for patients through community outreach and social groups. To learn more about the Bronchiectasis and NTM Initiative, visit their website to join their growing community. 

If you’re experiencing persistent cough, fatigue, night sweats, shortness of breath or weight loss, contact your doctor. If your primary care provider cannot help your chronic cough, you may need to see a lung specialist.

 


  1. Bronchiectasis and NTM Initiative. “What is NTM?” Retrieved from https://www.bronchiectasisandntminitiative.org/NTM-Lung-Disease/NTM-Resources/What-Is-NTM
  2. Bronchiectasis and NTM Initiative. “What is NTM?” Retrieved from https://www.bronchiectasisandntminitiative.org/NTM-Lung-Disease/NTM-Resources/What-Is-NTM
  3. Bronchiectasis and NTM Initiative. “What is NTM?” Retrieved from https://www.bronchiectasisandntminitiative.org/NTM-Lung-Disease/NTM-Resources/What-Is-NTM
  4. American Lung Association. “NTM Symptoms, Causes, & Risk Factors.” Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/nontuberculosis-mycobacteria/ntm-symptoms-causes-risks.html
  5. CHEST Foundation. “Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM).” Retreived from https://foundation.chestnet.org/patient-education-resources/nontuberculous-mycobacteria-ntm/
  6. NTM Info. “Am I Contagious.” Retrieved from https://www.ntminfo.org/am-i-contagious/
  7.  CHEST Foundation. “Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM).” Retreived from https://foundation.chestnet.org/patient-education-resources/nontuberculous-mycobacteria-ntm/
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