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What is Legionnaires’ Disease?

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Legionnaires’ disease is a lung infection you can get from inhaling droplets of water from things like air conditioning or hot tubs. It’s uncommon but it can be very serious.

Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia, and everyone is susceptible to infection. The risk increases with age, but some people are at higher risk including:

  • people over 45 years of age
  • smokers and heavy drinkers
  • people suffering from chronic respiratory or kidney disease
  • diabetes, lung and heart disease
  • anyone with an impaired immune system

The bacterium Legionella pneumophila and related bacteria are common in natural water sources such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs, but usually in low numbers. They may also be found in purpose-built water systems such as cooling towers, evaporative condensers, hot and cold-water systems and spa pools.

If conditions are favourable, the bacteria may grow increasing the risks of Legionnaires’ disease and it is therefore important to control the risks by introducing appropriate measures.

Where does it come from?

You can get Legionnaires’ disease if you breathe in tiny droplets of water containing bacteria that cause the infection.

It’s usually caught in places like hotels, hospitals or offices where the bacteria have got into the water supply. It’s less common to catch it at home.

You can get Legionnaires’ disease from things like:

  • air conditioning systems
  • humidifiers
  • spa pools and hot tubs
  • taps and showers that are not used often

You cannot usually get it from:

  • drinking water that contains the bacteria
  • other people with the infection
  • places like ponds, lakes and rivers

Outbreaks of the illness occur from exposure to legionella growing in purpose-built systems where water is maintained at a temperature high enough to encourage growth.

How do people get it?

People contract Legionnaires’ disease by inhaling small droplets of water (aerosols), suspended in the air, containing the bacteria. Certain conditions increase the risk from legionella if:

  • the water temperature in all or some parts of the system may be between 20-45 °C, which is suitable for growth
  • it is possible for breathable water droplets to be created and dispersed eg aerosol created by a cooling tower, or water outlets
  • water is stored and/or re-circulated
  • there are deposits that can support bacterial growth providing a source of nutrients for the organism eg rust, sludge, scale, organic matter and biofilms

Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease

Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease include:

  • a cough
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain or discomfort, particularly when breathing or coughing
  • a high temperature
  • flu-like symptoms

You should ask for an urgent GP appointment or call NHS 111 for help if you have symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease such as:

  • a cough that has lasted 3 weeks or more
  • coughing up blood
  • chest pain that comes and goes, or happens when breathing or coughing
  • feeling short of breath

Treatment for Legionnaires’ disease

You may need to go into hospital if you’re diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease.

Treatment in hospital may include:

  • antibiotics given directly into a vein
  • oxygen through a face mask or tubes in your nose
  • a machine to help you breathe

When you start to get better you might be able to take antibiotic tablets at home. Antibiotic treatment usually lasts 1 to 3 weeks.

Most people make a full recovery, but it might take a few weeks to feel back to normal.

How to prevent it

If conditions are favourable, the bacteria may grow increasing the risks of Legionnaires’ disease and it is therefore important to control the risks by introducing appropriate measures outlined in Legionnaires’ disease – The Control of Legionella bacteria in water systems (L8).

Some useful links can be found below:

Sources

The Health and Safety Executive

NHS

For more information or support, contact us on info@wpsafety.co.uk or 01268 649006.

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