Actinomycosis 

Introduction 

The Tokkels: stop tooth decay

You can stop tooth decay by following a few simple rules. Use fluoride toothpaste; spit, don't rinse; brush before, not after, meals.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Preventing actinomycosis

Most cases of oral actinomycosis occur as a result of poor dental hygiene. Practising good dental hygiene is the best way to prevent actinomycosis.

Read about preventing tooth decay and dental health for more information and advice about good oral hygiene practices.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are medications that are used to treat, and in some cases prevent, bacterial infections.

Actinomycosis is a rare type of bacterial infection.

Most bacterial infections are confined to one part of the body because the bacteria are unable to penetrate the body’s tissue. However, actinomycosis is unusual in that the infection is able to move slowly but steadily through the body tissue.

Symptoms of actinomycosis vary depending on the type of infection but can include:

  • swelling and inflammation of affected tissue
  • tissue damage that results in scar tissue
  • formation of abscesses (pus-filled swellings)
  • small holes or tunnels that develop in tissue and leak a type of lumpy pus

Read more about the symptoms of actinomycosis.

Types of actinomycosis

In theory, actinomycosis can develop almost anywhere inside the tissue of the human body. But the condition tends to affect certain areas of the body and can be classified into four main types:

  • oral cervicofacial actinomycosis
  • thoracic actinomycosis
  • abdominal actinomycosis
  • pelvic actinomycosis

These are described below.

Oral cervicofacial actinomycosis

Oral cervicofacial actinomycosis is where the infection develops inside the neck, jaw or mouth. Most cases are caused by dental problems, such as tooth decay.

Oral cervicofacial actinomycosis is the most common type of actinomycosis and accounts for an estimated half of all cases.

Thoracic actinomycosis

Thoracic actinomycosis is where the infection develops inside lungs or associated airways. It is thought most cases of thoracic actinomycosis are caused by people accidentally inhaling droplets of contaminated fluid into their lungs.

Thoracic actinomycosis accounts for an estimated 15-20% of cases.

Abdominal actinomycosis

Abdominal actinomycosis is where the infection develops inside the abdomen (tummy). This type of actinomycosis can have a range of potential causes. It can develop as a secondary complication of a more common infection, such as appendicitis, or after accidentally swallowing a foreign object, such as a chicken bone.

Abdominal actinomycosis accounts for an estimated 20% of all cases.

Pelvic actinomycosis

Pelvic actinomycosis is where the infection develops inside the pelvis. Pelvic actinomycosis usually only occurs in women because most cases are caused when the actinomyces bacteria are spread from the female genitals into the pelvis.

It is thought that most cases of pelvic actinomycosis are associated with the long-term use of the intrauterine device (IUD) type of contraceptive, often referred to as the coil.

Pelvic actinomycosis accounts for an estimated 10% of all cases.

What causes actinomycosis?

Actinomycosis is caused by a family of bacteria known as actinomyces bacteria. In most cases, the bacteria live harmlessly on the lining of the mouth, throat, digestive system and the vagina (in women).

The bacteria only pose a problem if the tissue lining becomes damaged by injury or disease, allowing the bacteria to penetrate deeper into the body. This is potentially serious because the actinomyces bacteria are anaerobic bacteria, which means they thrive in parts of the body where there are low levels of oxygen, such as deep inside human tissue.

However, one advantage of the fact that actinomyces bacteria are anaerobic is that they cannot survive outside the human body. This means that actinomycosis is not a contagious condition.

Read more about the causes of actinomycosis.

Who is affected?

Actinomycosis is one of the rarest types of bacterial infections. It is thought that, in developed countries, such as England, just one person in every 300,000 will develop actinomycosis in any given year. On average, there are 100 admissions to hospital each year in England due to actinomycosis.

Treating actinomycosis

The infection responds well to treatment, although it is usually necessary to take a course of antibiotics lasting several months to ensure all the bacteria are wiped out.

In some cases minor surgery may be required to repair the damaged tissue and to drain pus out of the abscesses.

Read more about how actinomycosis is treated.

Complications

Abscesses that occur as a result of actinomycosis may develop in many parts of your body, including your lungs. Abscesses can spread easily from one part of your body to another.

If the original site of the infection is located in the skin of your face, it may spread to nearby parts of your body, such as your scalp or ears.

If the original site of the infection is your mouth, it may spread to your tongue, larynx (voicebox), trachea (windpipe) and salivary glands, and the tubes that connect your throat to your nose.

If the infection spreads to your brain, a brain abscess could develop.

Page last reviewed: 14/08/2012

Next review due: 14/08/2014

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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

screwdriver222 said on 11 April 2014

My partner had actinomycosis a few years back. She had part of her colon removed and a colostomy, part of her bladder removed, hysterectomy and stents put into her kidneys.

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