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Legionnaires' disease: What you need to know

There’s something nefarious about Legionnaires’ disease. This serious type of pneumonia is caused by bacteria that’s often lurking in building water systems. Hotels, office buildings, fountains and hot tubs can be the source for this sometimes fatal infection.

About the disease

Legionnaires is caused by bacteria called Legionella, which is found naturally in freshwater environments, like lakes and streams, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Outdoors, it rarely causes infections.

But it can become a problem when it grows indoors and multiplies easily in water systems like air conditioners, hot tubs, plumbing, fountains and even water mist sprayers in the produce departments of grocery stores.

Most Legionnaires outbreaks have happened in large buildings, maybe because their complex plumbing systems allow the bacteria to grow and spread easily, points out the Mayo Clinic. Because home and car air-conditioning units don’t use water to cool the air, they’re not at risk.

The disease was named after an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1976, where many people who went to an American Legion convention got sick with a lung infection.

How the infection spreads

Most people get infected when they inhale tiny water droplets containing Legionella bacteria. This might be from water running through a ventilation system in a building or from the spray from a shower, faucet, fountain or hot tub.

It’s unusual, but people can also get sick by aspirating drinking water containing the bacteria. That’s when water accidentally gets into the lungs as you drink.

People don’t usually spread Legionnaires’ disease to others, although it’s possibly under very rare circumstances, according to the CDC.

Most healthy people exposed to the bacteria do not get sick. If the bacteria causes a mild infection, it’s known as Pontiac fever.

People most at risk of Legionnaires’ disease are those 50 and older, current or former smokers, and people who have chronic lung disease, weakened immune systems, cancer or other underlying illnesses.

Symptoms and treatment

Like other types of pneumonia, Legionnaires’ symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Weakness and fatigue

Chest X-rays should show evidence of the bacteria, according to the CDC.

Legionnaires’ disease is treated with antibiotics. The more quickly treatment begins, the more likely there won’t be any complications. According to the CDC, about one in 10 people who get Legionnaires’ disease will die.

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

Legionnaires’ disease: What you need to know

Legionnaires’ disease is a sometimes-deadly pneumonia found in building water systems.

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