What is Legionnaires disease?
Legionnaires’ disease is a severe kind of pneumonia, an inflammation of the lungs typically caused by infection. In Legionnaires’ case, the legionella bacterium is the culprit.
The bacteria live in soil and water outdoors, where they rarely cause harm. They can also be found indoors, where they live in water and other systems, for example air conditioning units, showers, taps, ventilation systems, swimming pools, fountains and water systems in hotels, cruise ships, hospitals and nursing homes.
Most people catch it by breathing the bacteria in. Some catch the disease at home but most cases arise in big buildings with complicated systems where bacteria can easily spread and grow, and people ultimately breathe in microscopic water droplets containing the bacteria.
The disease can also spread by coughing or choking when you’re having a drink, when tiny particles of water containing the bacteria get into your lungs. Plus, very rarely, from the soil, usually in keen gardeners.
While it’s a lung disease, Legionnaires’ sometimes causes infections in wounds and internal organs like the heart. The same bacteria cause Pontiac fever, a mild disease a bit like flu which doesn’t affect the lungs and usually clears up on its own.
Legionnaire’s can kill, but you can easily be exposed to the bacteria and never develop the illness. Smokers, older people, those with lung disease or a weak immune system are particularly susceptible, as are those with with diabetes, kidney disease or cancer.
Legionnaires disease symptoms
- The disease usually develops 2-10 days after exposure to the bacteria
- At first you’ll notice a headache, muscle pain and chills, and your temperature can soar to 104 F or more
- On day 2 you’ll get a mucus-rich and sometimes bloody cough and may be short of breath
- You might also get chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and mental confusion
Legionnaire’s disease killer complications
In severe cases when treatment isn’t given soon enough, weaker patients can develop any of these killer conditions:
- Respiratory failure
- Acute kidney failure
- Septic shock
What does the treatment involve?
Legionnaire’s disease can be treated with antibiotics like azithromycin and ciprofloxacin. But fast diagnosis and treatment are essential for a good outcome, shortening recovery and preventing serious complications.
If you’re at high risk it’s even more important to get treatment fast. If you think you’ve been exposed the the bacteria and are experiencing the symptoms we’ve discussed above, see your GP as soon as you can.