The whole reason you take a shower is to wash away any dirt and grime on your body, and to feel fresh and clean. Unfortunately, the shower isn’t always as sparkly clean as it should be. Mold and bacteria can grow in there just like in any other part of your home, and some of it can make you sick. As it turns out, it might make you really sick. A new study has just shown that there’s one thing in your shower that could give you lung cancer, and it’s something you can’t avoid no matter what: the shower head.

The study, published in the journal MBio, shows that there are germs in your shower head called mycobacteria that could potentially cause nontuberculous myobacterial (NTM) lung disease if you breathe in specific types. The bacteria lives on the shower head, and when hot water runs through, they are released into the air and inhaled.

That doesn’t mean that every time you get in the shower, you’re exposing yourself to lung disease or cancer. According to Newsweek, most people can inhale mycobacteria without any issues. The problem begins when the germs attack the lungs and cause inflammation, NTM, or chronic lung problems. Symptoms of something like this include shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue, and weight loss. If it’s happening to you, you can try taking antibiotics… but you might need to take them for up to 12 months to fully clear the infection.

So, is this realistically something you need to worry about?

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The American Lung Association says that over 80,000 people have NTM in the U.S. alone, and many of those people are older adults or people with compromised immune systems. Most of the affected are from Southern California, Florida, Hawaii, and New York City. The authors of the study said that NTM infections were “increasingly recognized as a threat to public health” because of how difficult they are to treat, and that rates were on the rise in the U.S. and other parts of the world. That’s not super promising.

One way to avoid having this happen to you is to know how to keep mycobacteria at bay. Unfortunately, mycobacteria is most commonly found in the U.S. because we use so many chlorine-based disinfectants, which mycobacteria are more resistant to. They are also more commonly found in bathrooms that receive water from the municipal system.

As for what you can do?

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The study authors said that plastic shower heads might be a better choice — they contain chemicals that allow many different types of bacteria to grow, which keeps mycobacteria from dominating. It’s often found more on metal shower heads. Even knowing that, it can be hard to keep mycobacteria away. Researcher Matthew Gebert, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said that mycobacteria can tolerate “rapid temperature fluctuations,” as well as “long intervals of stagnation.”

At the end of the day, all you can do is opt for a plastic shower head over a metal one, and always keep it — and the rest of your shower — clean. And try not to panic too much: remember that most people come into contact with NTM bacteria all the time, and it does nothing to them. Don’t swear off showers just let!


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