Melioidosis is an illness you get from the bacterium B. pseudomallei. It lives in soil and surface water, mostly in Southeast Asia and Northern Australia. You can get infected if the bacterium enters through a break in your skin, or if you breathe it in or swallow it. Melioidosis is a life-threatening illness that needs immediate medical care.
Melioidosis is a disease you get from the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei (B. pseudomallei). You get it from direct contact with contaminated soil or water. Its symptoms vary depending on how you got infected and whether you have underlying conditions.
Both humans and animals can get melioidosis, but people can’t get it from animals. Melioidosis is also sometimes called Whitmore’s disease.
B. pseudomallei, the bacterium that causes melioidosis, is most commonly found in soil and bodies of water in Northern Australia and Southeast Asia — especially Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. However, there have been cases of melioidosis all over the world.
In the U.S., B. pseudomallei was found in the environment along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in 2022. In 2021, the CDC linked a case of melioidosis to an ingredient contaminated with B. pseudomallei in an aromatherapy spray. Three more people, all in different states, got melioidosis from the same contaminated ingredient.
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In areas where it’s more commonly found, melioidosis usually affects adults 40 to 60 years old with certain underlying conditions. Children under 15 rarely get melioidosis.
You’re at higher risk for melioidosis if you live or work in an area where B. pseudomallei is common and you’re living with:
Jobs or hobbies that put you in contact with soil and surface water (like gardening, landscaping or farming) in areas where B. pseudomallei is common also raise your risk.
Symptoms of melioidosis depend on where the infection is located in your body. You might have symptoms of infection in your lungs, skin, blood or many places at once.
If you have melioidosis in your lungs, you might experience:
Symptoms of melioidosis in your skin (localized) include:
You may have symptoms of melioidosis in your blood (septicemia) along with skin or lung symptoms. Symptoms of septicemia include:
You might have symptoms of melioidosis that develop over time and last two months or more. During this time, B. pseudomallei can spread to many parts of your body (disseminate). Symptoms of chronic or disseminated melioidosis include:
Most people develop symptoms of melioidosis within one to four weeks of being infected (incubation period). Some cases have happened months or years after exposure to B. pseudomallei.
The bacterium B. pseudomallei causes melioidosis. It lives in surface water (streams, rivers, lakes) and soil, mostly in tropical or subtropical areas.
You get melioidosis from direct contact with water or soil contaminated with B. pseudomallei.
B. pseudomallei can get into your body:
B. pseudomallei infections are more common during rainy seasons or after heavy rainfall.
Person-to-person transmission of melioidosis is rare. The most common way to get infected is through contact with contaminated soil or water.
To diagnose melioidosis, your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms, perform a physical exam and take samples of your blood or other body fluids. They may also ask you about your work, hobbies or travel history.
They’ll send your samples to a lab. There, a technician will use the samples to look for antibodies and try to grow B. pseudomallei. Samples that might be used to confirm melioidosis include:
Healthcare providers treat melioidosis with two phases of broad spectrum antibiotics.
You may need additional types of treatments, like abscess draining, depending on how severe your illness is.
Injected antibiotics your provider might give you include:
Oral antibiotics you might take include:
You can reduce your risk of melioidosis, especially in areas where B. pseudomallei is common, by taking a few precautions:
Most people who don’t have any underlying conditions and who receive prompt treatment make a full recovery from melioidosis. Treatment can last for months in order to fully get rid of the bacteria. Sometimes your symptoms can come back after you finish treatment (relapse).
The outlook is worse for those who have an underlying condition or who aren’t able to get diagnosed and treated quickly.
Melioidosis can be cured with a two-phase course of antibiotic treatment. However, some infections get severe quickly, and treatment may not be effective in all cases.
With prompt, appropriate treatment, melioidosis is fatal in 10% to 20% of cases. However, the risk of serious illness and death from melioidosis goes up based on:
If you’ve been diagnosed with melioidosis, make sure to take all of your medication as prescribed. If you stop taking antibiotics too soon, you could get sick again.
Keep any follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider. Let them know if your symptoms go away and come back or if you have new or worsening symptoms.
Melioidosis can spread to most parts of your body and cause complications, including:
See your healthcare provider right away if you have symptoms of melioidosis, especially if you live in or have recently traveled to an area with B. pseudomallei. Prompt treatment gives you the best chance for a full recovery.
If you think you’ve been exposed to B. pseudomallei recently, see your provider. They may give you post-exposure prophylaxis — antibiotics that might prevent you from getting melioidosis.
Go to the ER if you have symptoms of serious illness, including:
It may be helpful to ask your healthcare provider the following questions:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Melioidosis is a serious illness that can be difficult to diagnose. That's because its symptoms are similar to those of other, less serious diseases. Melioidosis can be life-threatening if left untreated. If you think you’ve been exposed to B. pseudomallei, have symptoms of melioidosis or are at high risk for severe illness, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider with your concerns.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/23/2022.
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