Legionnaire’s Disease: An Overview
Legionnaire’s Disease is an insidious illness
Many diseases can be painful and debilitating, but Legionnaire’s is especially bad.
What causes Legionnaire’s Disease?
Legionnaire’s is a severe form of pneumonia, accompanied by lung inflammation. The inflammation is caused by a bacteria referred to as legionella.
Generally, the condition develops between 2-10 days following exposure.
What are the symptoms of Legionnaire’s Disease?
- High fever (often 104 degrees)
- Muscle pains
After the 2nd day more symptoms can emerge, such as:
- Coughing up mucus or blood
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea
- Increased feelings of confusion
How do you get infected by Legionnaire’s Disease?
First, the good news: most people who are exposed to the legionella bacteria don’t get sick. But some folks do, and the infection usually is water-borne.
For instance, if you inhale water that has the legionella bacteria you’ll often get Legionnaire’s disease. The infected water is found in common places, such as:
- Showers (usually ones at hotels or public places, even co-ops)
- Hotel swimming pools, hot tubs, whirlpools
- Water fountains
- Gym equipment
- Air-conditioning units (usually ones in large buildings)
- Water systems (such as used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels)
- Supermarket produce areas (e.g. lettuce sprayers)
Water is a main source of infection, but soil can be as well
The legionella bacteria is contained in water droplets, specifically aerosolized droplets. So choking, or coughing while drinking something, is often one way you’d get Legionnaire’s disease.
But you can also contract the disease from infected soil. Some people have been infected while potting soil or while working in a garden.
How contagious is Legionnaire’s Disease?
The bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease cannot be spread from one individual to another. So it’s not contagious.
Who’s most likely to get Legionnaire’s Disease?
Most people who are exposed the Legionnaire’s bacteria (legionella) don’t get sick. But, the following folks are generally more susceptible to getting the disease:
- People who are 50 or older
- People who smoke
- People with a chronic lung disease
- People with weakened immune systems
Complications from Legionnaire’s Disease
There are several complications that can result from Legionnaire’s disease. Some of them include:
Respiratory failure: when the lungs can no longer supply enough oxygen, or can’t remove carbon dioxide from the blood.
Acute kidney failure: when the kidney can no longer remove waste from the blood. When an individual’s kidneys fail, the level of waste and fluid within the body can reach dangerous levels.
Septic shock: when one experiences a sudden, severe drop in blood pressure —usually because of decreased blood flow to vital organs, such as the brain and kidneys.
How do you know for sure if you have Legionnaire’s Disease?
The disease is confirmed by doing chest x-ray, accompanied by a physical exam. Also, there are various lab tests to determine if the legionella bacteria is present, most importantly a urinary antigen test. So, it’s not that hard to make a definitive determination.
How is Legionnaire’s Disease treated?
Legionnaire’s is treated with antibiotics. The antibiotics are designed to kill the legionella bacteria. With this treatment method most healthy people get better fairly quickly, usually within 10 days.
However, if one doesn’t get better quickly with antibiotics they may face hospitalization, and likely weeks of treatment in the Intensive Care Unit.
Can Legionnaire’s be completely cured?
If Legionnaire’s disease is not treated promptly and effectively, the condition can be fatal—especially if your immune system has been weakened for any reason.
Most victims recover, but between 5% and 30% of people who get the disease die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The CDC reports that between 2005 – 2009 – 8% of the cases resulted in deaths.
When Legionnaires disease is effectively treated the symptoms will usually disappear permanently. But, in some cases, the symptoms will only be partially resolved and long term respiratory problems may persist.
Obviously, if you think you have it (or know someone who may be infected), you should act quickly and get to a doctor as soon as possible. And, you should gather information quickly to ascertain where the disease was contracted and bring that to the attention of health officials to help forestall the likelihood of someone else contracting the disease in the same manner.