On October 6, 2021, the agency found the strain of bacteria that causes melioidosis inside a bottle of aromatherapy spray in the home of the patient from Georgia who got sick in July. Investigators are currently looking into whether the bacteria they found in the Walmart aromatherapy spray is a genetic match for the bacteria that made the patients sick. As the CDC continues its investigation, its experts are working with state health departments to find out if any of the other patients owned the same aromatherapy spray, or a similar product.
Melioidosis infections (also called Whitmore’s disease) are rare—especially in the U.S.—and hard to diagnose. People can contract them by ingesting, inhaling, or having skin contact (particularly through abrasions) of contaminated water droplets, dust, soil, or soil-contaminated food, the CDC explains. The infection can be hard to identify, since there are multiple types of melioidosis spanning a broad variety of local and general symptoms that can easily be confused for other, more common illnesses.
Signs and symptoms depend on the type of melioidosis infection and the body systems it affects: localized (pain, swelling, a skin ulcer or abscess); pulmonary (cough, chest pain, and headache); bloodstream (respiratory distress, stomach discomfort, joint pain, disorientation); or disseminated (weight loss, headache, seizures, central nervous system infection, and pain in the stomach, chest, muscles, or joints). All types of infections can cause a fever.
While people can become ill anywhere between 24 hours to years after exposure to the bacteria, symptoms usually come on about two to four weeks later. Though anyone can develop melioidosis, people with certain underlying medical conditions and suppressed immune systems may be more vulnerable. Conditions like diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, liver disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are all considered risk factors, per the CDC.
While melioidosis can be deadly and hard to diagnose, it is often treatable if caught. Treatment usually includes a course of intravenous antibiotics for two to eight weeks, followed by a course of oral antibiotics for three to six months, according to the CDC. Prognosis depends on factors like the type and extent of the infection, and how quickly and appropriately it is treated.
Anyone who has one of the recalled aromatherapy sprays should be extremely cautious handling it and follow specific steps to return the product and limit their exposure, the CDC advises. Double-bag the product in clear Ziploc bags, place the bags inside a small cardboard box, and bring the box to a Walmart store for a return. (Do not put the bottle in your regular garbage.) Touch the bottle as little as possible while doing this, and wash your hands well immediately afterward. (If you use gloves, wash your hands after taking them off.)
Then, clean surfaces and items in your home that you may have used the spray on. For instance, you should wash sheets and linens (using regular laundry detergent or bleach) and dry them thoroughly. Use a disinfectant cleaning product on surfaces that the spray might be on. Wash your hands after touching these linens or surfaces.
If you have used the recalled aromatherapy spray within the past three weeks and have symptoms of a melioidosis infection (such as a fever), the CDC recommends seeing a doctor and letting them know about your exposure. And if you used the product within the last week but don’t have symptoms, you may want to see your doctor anyway. They might want to prescribe you a course of antibiotics to prevent a potential infection—just in case.