In 1976, a mysterious strain of pneumonia swept through a group of people who attended an American Legion convention in Philadelphia. Almost 200 people got sick and 29 died. Despite a large-scale investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at first, no one knew what was behind the outbreak. It took about five months before researchers uncovered the culprit—a type of bacteria that became named Legionella, after the convention that led to its discovery.
The bacteria live in soil and bodies of water such as lakes, streams and artificial water reservoirs. The outbreak in Philadelphia was linked to the hotel that hosted the convention.
How can you contract Legionnaire’s disease?
The disease usually takes hold when you inhale aerosols from water or soil that contain the bacteria. Water sources such as pools, showers, hot tubs, aquariums, fountains, bars in pools, drinking water systems, air conditioning systems, cooling towers and other water collection systems can harbor the germs. So can soil and potting mix. Cases tend to occur in large buildings, not in homes.
While outbreaks like the one in Philadelphia get media attention, Legionnaire’s disease strikes in single, isolated cases most of the time.
You’re at higher risk if you are age 50 or older, smoke, or have chronic lung disease, diabetes or other immunocompromising conditions.
What are the symptoms of Legionnaire’s disease?
If you develop Legionnaire’s disease, you’ll probably notice fever, cough and shortness of breath two to 10 days after you’ve been exposed to contaminated water or soil. “What is different about pneumonia caused by Legionella is that people tend to experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which are not common in other forms of pneumonia,” Dr. Mekonnen said. “It presents as pneumonia, but it’s a multisystem disease.”
For more facts and information about pneumonia, check out: Breathtaking Pneumonia Facts You Need to Know
How can doctors diagnose and treat Legionnaire’s disease?
If you suspect you’ve been exposed to Legionnaire’s disease, watch for symptoms. “Most people who are exposed don’t actually get it,” Dr. Mekonnen said. However, if you think you might have Legionnaire’s disease, contact your health care provider, who will likely recommend a chest x-ray, blood test and urine test. If you test positive for the disease, antibiotics can treat it. You may need to be hospitalized for your treatment.
Treating it as soon as possible can help you recover more quickly and avoid dangerous or deadly complications like respiratory failure, septic shock or kidney failure. The CDC reports that about 10 percent of people who get Legionnaire’s disease will die from it.
The bottom line
Legionnaire’s disease is a dangerous form of pneumonia that can also cause symptoms throughout your body. If you think you might have Legionnaire’s disease, talk to a health care provider and get tested right away so you can start treatment quickly. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.
Learn more about diseases and conditions that can strike your lungs:
- Should I Be Worried About Pneumonia?
- Winded Taking the Stairs? It Could Be a Sign of IPF
- Myths & Facts About Bronchitis