The winter infection hiding in your water

It's that time of year, my friend. We're stockpiling surgical masks here at the Stengler Center the way squirrels stockpile nuts -- because winter is coming.

While it doesn't get truly cold here in sunny San Diego, we see our share of nasty respiratory illnesses, too.

The large number of "snowbirds" who fly down each year bring more than cameras and tourist dollars. They bring winter germs!

No matter where you live, though, if you get sick yourself, don't assume it's a bug you caught from someone else.

It could be something you got from your own home, from what might seem like the most unlikely of sources: your tap water.

New research finds three bacteria responsible for dangerous respiratory infections in seniors are turning up with alarming regularity in U.S. drinking water.

Over 15 years, 617,291 seniors were hospitalized for infections from these germs -- including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which causes a form of pneumonia, the Legionella pneumophila behind Legionnaire's Disease, and a nasty bug known as Mycobacterium avium.

These bacteria love dark, damp places -- especially the pipes that carry water into your home, which contain plenty of slimy pockets where they can hide and grow.

They can even grow in the plumbing inside your home, right up to and around your kitchen faucet.

While there's no guarantee all 617,291 hospitalizations were caused by germs found in water, that's the most likely source given where these bugs live. And, no doubt, there were more people sickened by the germs who didn't need hospitalization.

Don't let yourself be one of them.

You can dramatically cut your risk of being exposed to these bacteria and avoid infection by taking action today to make sure your water is safe -- and you can do that with two simple steps.

First, take apart your faucet every now and then and clean it out or even replace some of the smaller parts. Do the same with your showerhead, as bacteria can rush out in the steam -- and when you inhale, you bring them right into your lungs.

And second, filter your water with either reverse osmosis or a distiller.

Reverse osmosis is what many bottled-water companies use. Most of them don't actually use spring water, even if that's the picture they put on the bottle. They use the same city water as everyone else, but run it through these powerful filters.

You can get a smaller version of the same system for your home and have it installed either under the kitchen sink or even where the water supply reaches your house.

A distiller is a little cheaper and a little easier to set up on your own. It sits on your countertop, and you manually add water for the device to distill.

Whichever one you choose, you'll have clean water free of these and other germs.