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You inhale a 'brain-eating fungi' in Vancouver every day. Here's why that's usually OK

Zygomycosis often lives in soil and releases spores that people can breathe in through their noses.
People breathe in "brain-eating" fungi every day in Vancouver but it only causes problems in very rare instances.

Imagine breathing the air and inhaling fungi capable of devouring your brain.

While it might seem the stuff of science fiction, a mycologist says Vancouverites inhale this freaky fungus on a daily basis. 

Zygomycosis often lives in soil and releases spores that people can breathe in through their noses. When this happens, the spores implant themselves in the nasal passage through a network of threads called mycelium — and then the real trouble begins. 

The mycelium grows into a person's eye sockets and brain, resulting in a rare disease called rhinocerebral mucormycosis that causes "the nose to bleed, sinuses to swell, and eyes to bulge out," Mary Berbee told V.I.A., adding that it "spreads rapidly and is often fatal."

How often do people inhale this potentially fatal fungi? 

Berbee, who is a professor in the Department of Botany at the University of British Columbia (UBC), says people breathe in zygomycosis — and numerous other types of fungi — every day in the city.

"You are breathing [zygomycosis] in right now. [You'll be] breathing in thousands of it today," she explained.

Though it sounds alarming that people breathe in "brain-eating" fungi on a daily basis, most of them won't flourish inside of the human body and cause a problem. They require cooler temperatures to survive, and our natural body temperature protects us. 

"It's a miracle of the human immune system that you're breathing in tons of these [fungi] every day and you don't get sick," she remarked.

Art imitates life in a popular zombie TV show — sort of 

The Last of Us is a popular television show that envisions a post-apocalyptic world where people try to live following a pandemic caused by a mass fungal infection that turns people into zombie-like creatures. However, one of the fungi can't live in the body temperature of mammals, Berbee explained.

"The other thing that's really important is our skin is protecting us," she added, noting that most organisms can't penetrate our skin and that it is naturally water-repellent. 

But if fungi manage to penetrate the skin, the immune system detects the sugars on the outer wall of fungi and goes on the defensive. When a fungal infection itches, it means the human body is preparing to fight it.

"Your body is objecting strenuously to this invader and then your immune cells are able to surround and usually kill the fungal cells that are attempting invasion," she said.

Are some people more at risk of falling ill with rhinocerebral mucormycosis?

Berbee stressed that illnesses from this fungi are very rare. However, people who are immunocompromised, including those with diabetes, are the most at risk. That said, this typically applies to people with "uncontrolled" diabetes. 

Some parts of the world see higher rates of disease due to the prevalence of uncontrolled diabetes, such as India. 

"The changes in the body's metabolism [from diabetes] are exactly what the body needs in order to grow," she explained.

People who have had a whole organ transplant, such as a heart or liver, are also at a higher risk of contracting the rare disease.

What are the symptoms of the disease?

While the infection may start with a fever and a bad sinus headache, Berbee cautions that anyone showing these flu symptoms shouldn't run to the emergency room. 

However, there is an alarming progression of symptoms after these initial ones: the face swells up and then the flesh turns black after it dies. 

People who are suspected of having an infection need swift treatment since the mortality rate from the disease is high. 

Locals who want to check out this interesting fungus can observe it up close and personal in the city — but they may not enjoy the smell. After it rains, the fungi start to grow on dog feces since it "provides a good nutritional environment for it to grow." It will look somewhat like "hair growing on poop," Berbee said. 

Looking for a less offensive place to see it? Rotting pumpkins from post-Halloween revelry may also provide ideal conditions for the troublesome fungi.