(MOBILE, Ala.) Could what makes you clean be making you sick? Sounds unlikely. But it's true. Harmful bacteria can grow anywhere that's warm and moist even in your shower head.
And if you or someone in your family has health problems, that bacteria could make them worse.
This startling news came to light after a study by researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
After examining shower heads from nine different cities across the United States, they found a kind of scum, they call it biofilm, that can take up residence in the parts of the shower head you can't see.
"And these shower heads were pretty normal," says researcher Leah Feazel. "They didn't look particularly gross when I cut them open. So I was really surprised to see this much biofilm formation on the inside."
Dr. Norman Pace was the lead author of the study.
"What we found was around 30 percent, I think, was the number of shower heads that contained significant loads of mycobacterium Avium," says Pace. "That means when you get a face full of shower head when you first turn the shower on, that means you're getting a particularly high level of mycobacterium avium, a particularly unhealthy place to be."
But how unhealthy can it be? And for whom?
Dr. Joyce Roberson is the Director of Infection Control and Prevention at Mobile Infirmary.
Both she and Dr. Pace agree that those with strong immune systems will probably feel no effect. But some of us are at risk.
"Especially if they have an immune system," says Dr. Roberson, "or someone has cancer or a lower immune system, even a level that wouldn't cause me a problem might cause them a problem because they don't have the ability to fight it off."
That includes people with pulmonary issues, HIV, or those going through chemotherapy.
For those people, Mycobacterium Avium, as it's called, could lead to some pretty big problems.
"These types of diseases tend to develop very slowly," says Dr. Roberson, "probably over a period of years. What you'll notice is tiredness, shortness of breath, dry cough, continuous dry cough."
So what do you do? Robin Normand is a family nurse practitioner with the Mobile County Health Department.
"I don't want to be an alarmist," says Normand. "I don't want people to run out and feel like they have to pull of that shower head and put on a new one."
She offers this advice:
"If you feel like your shower head needs to be changed, if you need an update, change it."
And Dr. Roberson at Mobile Infirmary said, "If you have an area that you haven't used in a while, you may want to turn that water on, let it run for a while."
That's important for those with a guest room, especially if it's going to be used with someone who is dealing with a wounded immune system.
The easiest way to combat this is to include the shower head when you clean your bathroom.
Here's an easy way to do it without taking your shower head apart.
Fill a plastic bag with your favorite cleaning solution, bleach water, vinegar or disinfectant. Place it over the shower head and fasten it with a rubber band. Let it soak for one hour.
It's a bit of extra protection from the drops of danger that our showers can throw at us.