A deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease was confirmed in Scotland over the weekend, raising the profile of an infection that kills nearly 50 people a year. Underlying health conditions can worsen outcomes from the illness, but it can infect completely healthy people and needs immediate medical treatment.
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What is Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionnaires’ is a strain of pneumonia. It’s a bacterial disease that affects the lungs, caused by infected water. The culprit - legionella bacteria - is found in low concentrations in natural water systems including lakes and rivers. But sometimes it gets into artificial systems such as cooling towers for air conditioning and domestic (usually guesthouse or hotel) water-delivery systems. You can become infected by inhaling small droplets of infected water, but it’s not contagious so can’t pass from person to person. You also can’t become infected by drinking water containing the bacteria. This means that outbreaks are generally contained to a particular building or area. The infection was named after an outbreak at a hotel where a convention of the American Legion was taking place.
Legionnaires’ disease can kill. Around 10 to 15 per cent of those infected will die with the elderly and those with other health conditions at a higher risk. Men are three times more likely to catch it.
Anywhere between two and 19 days after exposure, the symptoms of Legionnaires’ can begin. Usually it takes around a week for symptoms to become apparent. The initial phase is hard to recognise with mild headaches and muscle pains but over the next few days more severe flu-like symptoms begin. You may experience a fever, more intense muscle pain, chills, tiredness and confusion. The bacteria will then start to affect your lungs, causing a persistent cough, beginning dry but sometimes leading to coughing up mucus or occasionally blood. Shortness of breath and chest pain often accompanies this.
Less common symptoms include nausea, sickness and diarrhoea.
Legionnaires’ is fairly rare with only around 345 cases reported in the UK each year, and the symptoms can be mistaken for other, less serious conditions. If you have a high temperature, it’s almost always caused by a bacterial infection that needs antibiotic treatment. If you have additional risk factors such as underlying health conditions, you may be kept in hospital for treatment, but otherwise you’ll be given a course of antibiotics that lasts anywhere from seven days to three weeks. If you have any of these symptoms and know an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease has occurred locally, call NHS 24 (08454 24 24 24) or get an emergency appointment with your GP, as early treatment significantly lowers the risk of the disease being fatal.