Actinomycosis: Causes, Symptoms and treatment

Actinomycosis is a long-lasting infection that causes lesions, or abscesses, in the soft tissues of the body. Actinomycosis is typically found within:

  • nose
  • throat
  • lungs
  • mouth
  • stomach
  • intestines

Actinomycosis is rarely seen in other areas of the body. However, it may spread from the original infected area to other parts of the body if the disease or injury harms your tissues. Actinomycosis is not infectious. It is most commonly found in tropical regions around the world. (1)

What Are the Symptoms of Actinomycosis?

If your mouth tissue becomes infected, it can cause what is commonly called “lumpy jaw.” A hard lump can be experienced in the jaw. The lump itself is usually painless. However, it may lead to a painful abscess of the skin which first appears as a reddish contusion at the site. Actinomycosis may also cause muscular spasms in the jaw or a “locked jaw”. If this happens, the mouth cannot be opened properly.

Other symptoms associated with actinomycosis include:

  • too much sinus drainage.
  • coughing
  • chest pain
  • a fever
  • weight loss
  • lumps on the neck or face
  • draining sores on the skin

What Causes Actinomycosis?

Actinomycosis is a rare infection, most commonly in the US. Because of the slow spread of the infection, actinomycosis was initially thought to be a fungal infection. However, a family of bacteria known as Actinomycetaceae is responsible. Bacteria belonging to this family include:

  • Actinomyces naeslundii
  • Actinomyces viscosus
  • Actinomyces israelii
  • Actinomyces odontolyticus

These bacteria are naturally found in the cavities of your body such as your nose and throat, but usually do not cause infection unless they are able to pierce the protective wall of your body cavities.

What Are the Risk Factors for Actinomycosis?

You are more likely to get actinomycosis if you:

  • have an immune system that is damaged because of drugs or some other disease.
  • are malnourished
  • careless dental care after dental surgery or injury to the mouth or jaw.

One of the most frequent causes of actinomycosis is an abscess in the mouth or teeth. If you have recently had an abscess in your mouth, you should consult your physician immediately. Women who have used an intra-uterine device (IUD) for contraception are also considered to be at greater risk.

How Is Actinomycosis Diagnosed?

Actinomycosis is typically diagnosed with a fluid or tissue sample from the affected region. A microscope is used to detect the presence of Actinomyces bacteria in the sample. These bacteria develop as yellowish granules. (2)

How Is Actinomycosis Treated?

Antibiotics are the primary method of treating actinomycosis. Large doses of penicillins are usually needed to treat the infection. If you are allergic to penicillin, your physician may provide you with additional antibiotics, such as:

  • clindamycin
  • tetracycline
  • erythromycin

It may take as long as a year before antibiotics completely cure the infection.

Any skin eruption, or abscess, from the infection may need to be drained or removed. If you have developed actinomycosis as a result of using a IUD, the unit should be removed to prevent infection.

Report any symptoms of actinomycosis to your doctor immediately. Early and aggressive treatment reduces the risk of long-term complications and surgical problems.

Potential Long-Term Complications

Actinomycosis begins in the body’s soft tissues, but it may infect any surrounding bone if left untreated. A surgical procedure may be required to remove all infected bones. If the infection is in the nasal sinuses, surgery may be necessary to remove the damaged bones and tissues.

Rarely, actinomycosis of the nasal sinuses affects the brain. This can lead to another severe type of infection known as meningitis.

Preventing Actinomycosis

One of the most effective ways to prevent actinomycosis is to keep your mouth clean. Set up regular appointments with your dentist to help them identify potential issues. If you get the right treatment for actinomycosis, it is highly curable and you will probably recover completely.

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