Mycoplasma Infection in Singapore

Understand what Mycoplasma is and learn how to avoid, recognise and treat it, as well as how to prevent it from spreading to your family and the general public...

Mycoplasma has been very prominent in Singapore in recent years. The infection can make a person feel unwell, with typical symptoms including aches, coughs and fatigue, though many infected people don't feel bad enough to visit a GP. It is, however, important to understand and diagnose Mycoplasma in order to avoid infecting others.

Mycoplasma infection typically refers to the respiratory illness caused by Mycoplasma Pneumoniae, a microscopic organism related to bacteria. Most infections involve the upper respiratory tract (such as sore throat, bronchitis). In five to ten percent of patients, the infection can progress to pneumonia. The medical term for this lung infection is Atypical Pneumonia or Community Acquired Pneumonia. It is also commonly referred to as "Walking Pneumonia", as the symptoms are usually mild and most patients are able to function quite normally. Hospitalisation is rarely required. Complications are relatively rare.

Anyone can get the illness, but it most often affects older children and young adults. Children under five years old usually have mild or no symptoms. It is uncommon in the first year of life.

Symptoms of Mycoplasma

Symptoms usually develop around two to three weeks after exposure to the organism. The symptoms develop slowly, over a period of two to four days. Typical initial symptoms include fever, sore throat, fatigue, body aches, headaches and dizzy spells. A dry cough, often in spasms, is the hallmark of the infection. Early stages of the infection can be very similar to that of the common cold or even influenza. However, with Mycoplasma infection, the symptoms can be persistent, especially the cough and fatigue, which can linger for weeks and sometimes months.

Spread of Mycoplasma

Like the cold and flu, the illness is spread through contact with droplets from the nose and throat of infected people, especially when they cough and sneeze. It is usually spread by close, prolonged contact, which explains outbreaks in schools, institutions and families.

Immunity after Mycoplasma infection does occur, but it is not life-long. Second infections can occur, but may be milder. The duration of immunity is unknown.

Diagnosis of Mycoplasma

Most cases are usually diagnosed by clinical history, on the basis of typical symptoms. A non-specific blood test is also helpful in the diagnosis but is not always accurate. The test is best done one week after the onset of symptoms. A chest X-ray will be useful if pneumonia is suspected.

Treatment of Mycoplasma

Antibiotics such as erythromycin, azithromycin or clarithromycin are effective treatment. However, most infections are self-limiting (that is, they heal on their own) so antibiotic treatment is not always required, especially for mild symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection. If needed, treatment with appropriate antibiotics should be given for 10 to 14 days.

Preventative Measures

Currently, there are no vaccines available. As with any respiratory illness, the sufferer should cover the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, use tissues whenever possible and throw the tissues away after use. Washing hands after doing the above actions, as well as avoiding crowded spaces and close contact with others would also be ideal.

Further Information

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Information supplied by Dr. Clarice Chia Woodworth (M.B.B.S. Dip Practical Dermatology) Dr Clarice Chia Woodworth practices family medicine at the International Medical Clinic (IMC) and is also the clinic's Medical Director. Copyright © 2008 Dr. Clarice Chia Woodworth All Rights Reserved. Picture courtesy of Caroline Carter