What is Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionnaires’ disease, or legionellosis, is a common type of bacterial pneumonia (lung infection) that can be very serious and sometimes life-threatening. A particular strain of bacteria called Legionella causes the illness.
Who is most at risk for Legionnaires’ disease?
Older people and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk of getting Legionnaires’ disease. The healthier you are, the less chance you’ll get Legionnaires’ disease (even if you breathe in the bacteria).
You have an increased risk of getting Legionnaires’ disease if you:
- Are older than 50
- Smoke cigarettes (or used to)
- Have a weakened immune system (or take medication that suppresses the immune system, such as chemotherapy)
- Have certain health conditions, such as:
Symptoms and Causes
How does someone get Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionella bacteria live best in warm water. They are found in some freshwater lakes and streams. When certain man-made water structures aren’t maintained with proper disinfectants, the bacteria can grow and cause a health risk. But it has also been found in natural water and even soil. The man-made water systems most susceptible to Legionella spread include:
- Hot tubs
- Shower heads
- Decorative water features, such as fountains
- Hot water tanks and heaters
- Air conditioning units for large buildings
Legionella bacteria become airborne in tiny droplets of water rising from these water systems. When someone breathes in air that contains the bacteria, they can get Legionnaires’ disease.
Less often, people can contract Legionnaires’ disease by aspirating (breathing in) drinking water. This is when water “goes down the wrong pipe,” sending liquid down the windpipe and into your lungs instead of down your esophagus and into your stomach. Legionnaires’ disease cannot be spread from person to person.
What are the most common symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionnaires’ disease symptoms look a lot like other pneumonia symptoms. If you have Legionnaires’ disease, you may experience:
- Dyspnea, or shortness of breath
- Fever or muscle aches
- Nausea or diarrhea
Most people see symptoms start a few days up to a week after being exposed to the Legionella bacteria. Sometimes, symptoms may show up 2 weeks after exposure.
Diagnosis and Tests
How do doctors diagnose Legionnaires’ disease?
Doctors most often diagnose Legionnaires’ disease the same way they detect other forms of pneumonia, with a chest X-ray and by symptoms. Legionnaires’ disease can look similar to regular pneumonia on a chest X-ray. Your doctor may test a sample of your urine or phlegm (mucus) to confirm you have Legionnaires’ disease. A blood test can also check for antibodies to Legionella.
Management and Treatment
What are common Legionnaires’ disease treatments?
Doctors often treat Legionnaires’ disease effectively with antibiotics, especially in otherwise healthy people.
Can Legionnaires’ disease be prevented?
The risk of Legionnaires’ disease can be reduced if water systems in which Legionella bacteria breed are properly treated with disinfectant and other chemicals. Make sure home equipment that carry or contain sources of water – for example, shower heads, faucets, hot tubs, air conditioners – are properly cleaned. Unfortunately no vaccine is available.
Outlook / Prognosis
What’s the outcome (prognosis) for someone who has been diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease?
Most cases of Legionnaires’ disease are successfully treated with antibiotics. Sometimes, however, Legionnaires’ disease can lead to lung failure or other complications. These complications can be hard to treat. They can even be life-threatening for some people. Because of the potentially serious nature of this disease, many people who get Legionnaires’ disease need to be treated in a hospital. About 1 in 10 people who get the disease die from complications of their illness.
When should I call the doctor?
If you develop symptoms of cough, fever, shortness of breath, diarrhea and nausea you should consult your physician.