Actinomyces Israelii: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Actinomyces israelii is a bacteria found naturally in your body. It's usually harmless, but sometimes it can cause a condition called actinomycosis. Read this lesson to learn about the symptoms and treatment options for this condition.

What Is Actinomyces Israelii?

Actinomyces israelii is a species of bacteria that is commonly found in the human body, usually in the nose and mouth. Under normal circumstances, it is harmless to humans. However, sometimes it moves further into the body through a break in the mucus membranes, and when this happens, problems develop.

A microscopic image of Actinomyces israelii

When A. israelii gets into places in the body it shouldn't be, it causes a bacterial infection called actinomycosis. This infection can occur with just A. israelii, or it can occur when A. israelii bacteria join with other Actinomyces species, such as A. naeslundii, A. viscosus, and A. odontolyticus.

Actinomycosis is rare in the United States but is more common in tropical regions of the world. It may also be referred to as Rivalta disease, big jaw, lumpy jaw, clams, and wooden tongue because of the side effects that commonly affect the mouth and neck.

Symptoms of Actinomycosis

Now that we know what Actinomyces israelii is, let's take a look at the symptoms of actinomycosis. When the bacteria enters the body, it can form an abscess on the soft tissues. An abscess is a small, pus-filled sore. As the abscess enlarges over time, it can break through the skin's surface, causing skin sores.

These abscesses or lumps commonly affect the head and neck, and they can cause muscle spasms that prevent the jaw from moving properly (also known as lockjaw). However, they can also form in the lungs, stomach, and intestines, in addition to the mouth, nose, and throat.

Other common symptoms include fever, weight loss, coughing, chest pain, and excessive drainage from the sinus cavities. Symptoms may be slow to develop, but early treatment is key to a speedy recovery.

When A. israelii infects the body, sores begin to form on soft tissue. This image shows a scan of what that developing infection looks like under an imaging microscope.

Treating Actinomycosis

As a bacterial infection, actinomycosis' most effective treatment is antibiotics, such as penicillin. These can eradicate the bacteria but take a long time to do so--sometimes up to a year is needed to banish the infection.

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