A California teen has been battling a chronic and severe infection acquired from a fish tank. Five years ago, Hannele Cox cut her hand when she pulled it out of an aquarium. It sounds like it was a pretty minor scratch, but it doesn’t take much to cause an infection under the right circumstances.

A while after the injury, infection was apparent. A round of antibiotics didn’t fix it (no word on whether any bacterial cultures were performed at that point). Eventually, a dermatologist diagnosed the problem: Mycobacterium marinum infection. One problem with infections like this is that they are sometimes not diagnosed until they are quite advanced. If the patient doesn’t mention the aquarium exposure and/or the physician doesn’t ask about pets, an infection like M. marinum might not be considered.

Mycobacterium marinum infection is sometimes called "fish tank granuloma" in testament to its common association with fish tanks. It can be found in both freshwater and marine fish (and the water in their tanks), and most often infected fish don’t have any signs of disease. Therefore, you have to assume that any fish and any aquarium could be infected, and therefore a potential source of human infection.

Infections with M. marinum usually develop a couple of weeks after exposure and are characterized by small bumps (papules) on the skin that progress to shallow ulcers. Typically, infection is not very invasive and responds to treatment, although months of treatment may be required. Sometimes, the infection can spread to deeper tissues, making it much harder to treat. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to Hannele Cox. Her infection has not responded well to treatment and has spread to deeper tissues, including bone. She’s had two surgeries to try to save her hand, and at least one more is planned. Amputation isn’t outside of the realm of possibility, but will hopefully be avoided.

Fish owners should be aware of the risk of M. marinum infection.  While fish are often ignored as a potential causes of infection and the overall risk is low, there are simple measures that can be undertaken to reduce the risk of acquiring an infection from fish tanks. These mainly involve limiting contact with fish tank water and the use of good general hygiene practices:

  • Contact with aquarium water should be minimized
  • Never dump aquarium water into kitchen or bathroom sinks.
  • Promptly clean up any aquarium water spills.
  • Take care when putting your hands in the aquarium, especially if there are sharp surfaces (e.g. rock, coral) that might result in cuts or abrasions.
  • Hands should be washed thoroughly after contact with aquarium water.
  • People with compromised immune systems should not have contact with aquarium water. They should have someone else clean their fish tank.