Legionnaires’ disease continues to make national headlines as outbreaks have been discovered in New York City (NYC), Quincy, Illinois, and San Quentin, California. Most recently, the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ Disease has been detected in water samples at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. However, despite the media attention surrounding these outbreaks, this serious illness continues to be underreported and underdiagnosed. This is because many people might not be aware of the signs, symptoms, and circumstances that trigger the disease or they could be often misdiagnosed. That being said, here are some essential facts that everyone should know about Legionnaires’ disease.
- Legionnaires’ Disease Is Aptly Named–The serious illness was discovered and named following a 1976 outbreak at an American Legion Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After the convention, a number of Legionnaires that attended began experiencing mysterious symptoms such as high fevers that reached 107 degrees, as well as pneumonia. A month later, nearly half of the 14 infected men had died, however, a cause for the illnesses could not be determined. Amid fears of an epidemic, the outbreak made national headlines. Several months after the initial outbreak, doctors linked the illness to a bacterium, which they named Legionella pneumophila. Moreover, they discovered that Legionella grows in warm water and the outbreak at the convention was spread via the hotel’s air-conditioning system.
- The Legionella Bacteria Manifests Itself in Two Forms–Legionellosis is a respiratory infection caused by Legionella bacteria and it manifests itself in two forms–Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac fever. Someone who is infected with Legionnaires’ disease will develop pneumonia while a person with Pontiac fever has a milder form of the illness. Instead of pneumonia, someone with Pontiac fever will experience influenza-like symptoms. It is important to note that Pontiac fever and Legionnaires’ disease share similar symptoms including shortness of breath, cough, high fever, headaches, and muscle aches.
- Treatment Differs Depending on Form–Legionnaires’ disease can be difficult to diagnose because it shares many of its common signs and symptoms with several other ailments. The incubation period of the disease is two to 14 days after a person is exposed to the bacteria. Lung infection and pneumonia are common symptoms associated with Legionella because the bacteria thrive in the warm, moist environment of the lungs. In many cases, patients can be successfully treated with antibiotics but hospitalization is often required. In comparison, Pontiac fever often resolves itself without treatment.
- Many Forms of the Bacteria Exist–There are at least 60 different species of Legionella and most forms are considered capable of causing disease. However, the majority of disease is linked to Legionella pneumophila, particularly serogroup 1.
- Legionnaires’ Disease Is Treatable but Serious and Potentially Fatal–Another essential fact to consider is while Legionnaires’ disease is treatable, individuals over 50 years of age, those who have compromised immune systems, respiratory ailments such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as other underlying medical conditions, are at greater risk of serious illness after contracting the illness. Among those who develop Legionnaires’ disease, approximately five to 30 percent will succumb to their illness.
- Legionnaires’ Disease Has Serious Complications–Legionnaires’ disease is also associated with some serious health complications including acute kidney failure, respiratory failure, and septic shock. The best line of defense against these complications is early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics.
- Legionnaires’ Disease Cannot Spread From Person to Person–The illness is contracted by breathing in steam, vapor, or mist that has been contaminated with the Legionella bacteria. The disease is not transmitted from person to person and most people exposed to the bacteria do not become ill.
- Travel and Smoking Also Contribute to Risk of Legionnaires’ Disease–Over 20 percent of those individuals diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease have traveled within the incubation period of two to 14 days. Moreover, Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks have been linked to whirlpools, hot tubs, and swimming pools on cruise ships, as well as water systems in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels. Meanwhile, smokers often have compromised respiratory function, immunity, and other health issues, which makes them more vulnerable to Legionnaires’ disease, or its milder form, Pontiac fever.
As the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center takes steps to remove the pathogen from its water system in the most recent Legionnaires’ disease bacteria outbreak, there has been no human illness linked to this incident as yet. This, however, was not the case with the other three recent outbreaks in NYC, Illinois, and California, where several deaths and numerous illnesses were attributed to the disease. Given the difficulties surrounding a diagnosis, it is important that people are aware of the signs, symptoms, and circumstances that trigger Legionnaires’ disease. Otherwise, they could be easily misdiagnosed. Hopefully, this article will educate readers regarding some of the essential facts that everyone should know about Legionnaires’ disease.
Written and Edited by Leigh Haugh
Medscape–What Everyone Needs to Know About Legionnaires’ Disease
Everyday Health–10 Essential Facts About Legionnaires’ Disease
Syracuse–Three Legionnaires Cases, One Fatal, at Syracuse Hospital
Minneapolis Star Tribune–Minneapolis VA taking steps to clean water system of Legionnaires’ disease bacteria