Burkholderia Cepacia and Cystic Fibrosis

Rare bacterial infection can turn deadly if left untreated

Burkholderia cepacia, a bacteria which used to be called Pseudomonas cepacia, is a rare but significant threat to people living with cystic fibrosis (CF). While ​the infection is most often symptom-free, it can turn serious, and even life-threatening.

1
How Burkholderia Cepacia Causes Infection

Walking Barefoot on the Grass
Steve West / Getty Images

Burkholderia cepacia (B. cepacia) is a group of bacteria found naturally in wet soil and decaying plants.

In the past, we used to believe that the strains of B. cepacia found in the environment were not the same as those found in people. Recent studies have proved just the opposite, confirming that the bacteria can be spread by contact with infected individuals as well as contaminated surfaces.

2
Severity of B. Cepacia Infection

Doctor looking at xrays
Ron Levine/Stone/Getty Images

Once B. cepacia enters the body, there are three possible things that can happen:

  • It colonizes in the lungs but causes no symptoms or long-term effects. 
  • It colonizes in the lungs, causing infection and inflammation that slowly deteriorates lung function.
  • It spreads (disseminates) throughout the body causing cepacia syndrome, an illness characterized by the rapid deterioration of the lungs. If left untreated, cepacia syndrome can lead to death within weeks.

3
Symptoms of B. Cepacia

Woman coughing
BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

The symptoms of B. cepacia, if any, are the same as those for any lung infection and can include fever, cough, congestion, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

4
Diagnosis of B. Cepacia

Female scientist examining micro organisms in petri dish
Andrew Brookes/Cultura/Getty Images

The only way to diagnose B. cepacia is to culture the sputum (a mixture of mucus and saliva coughed up from the respiratory tract). A culture will confirm if B. cepacia is present and, if so, which strain or strains you are dealing with.

5
Frequency of B. Cepacia Infection

Patient sitting on hospital bed waiting
Portra Images/Taxi/Getty Images

B. cepacia is not common. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, only three percent of the people with CF tested positive for the bacteria, including those with symptoms and without.

The good news is that B. cepacia occurs much less frequently than other organisms responsible for infections in people with CF. The bad news is that, when it does occur, it can often be difficult to treat.

B. cepacia rarely affects people with healthy immune systems.

6
How B. Cepacia Is Spread

Young woman cleaning kitchen counter
Justin Pumfrey/Stone/Getty Images

While it is possible for B. cepacia to be spread through indirect contact with objects (fomites), person-to-person contact is by far the most common route of transmission. 

If transmitted indirectly, B. cepacia is known to live on sinks, countertops, utensils, and personal care items for up to two hours if bacterial droplets are dry and up to 24 hours if they are wet. 

7
Passing B. Cepacia to Others

Hospital bed
Dana Neely/Taxi/Getty Images

If infected with any strain of B. cepacia, you should avoid close contact with other susceptible people. This includes the sharing of hospital rooms or being around individuals who are immune compromised or have CF.

8
Treating B. Cepacia Infection

Medicine in various pills
ZhangXun/Moment/Getty Images

If you have CF and are infected with B. cepacia, you will need to be even more diligent about your treatments (airway clearance, bronchodilatorsmucolytics) even if you have no symptoms.

If there are symptoms, things get a bit trickier. B. cepacia is highly resistant to most antibiotics and often requires combination therapy to eradicate the bacteria.

While recent studies suggest that drug-resistant strains may respond to a solution called a nanoemulsion (which uses submicron-size drug molecules), the concept is still in the early stages of research.

9
How to Reduce Your Risk of B. Cepacia

Young lady in face mask using smartphone on train
Images By Tang Ming Tung/Digital Vision/Getty Images

If you have CF, you can reduce your risk of infection by avoiding any potential source of contamination.

As a rule, do not share food, drink, utensils, masks, nebulizers, or personal care items with others. Stay at least three feet away from others with CF if they are coughing, and always practice good hygiene if you've touched wet or potentially contaminated surfaces.

Source:

Gautam, V.; Singhal, L.; and Ray, P. "Burkholderia cepacia complex: Beyond pseudomonas and acinetobacter." Ind J Med Microb. 2011; 29(1):4-12.

Continue Reading