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Where is the Legionella bacterium found?

Where is the Legionella bacterium found?
Legionella organisms can be found in many types of water systems. However, the bacteria reproduce to high numbers in warm, stagnant water (90°-105° F), such as that found in certain plumbing systems and hot water tanks, cooling towers and evaporative condensers of large air-conditioning systems, and whirlpool spas. Cases of legionellosis have been identified throughout the United States and in several foreign countries. It is believed to occur worldwide.

What are the usual symptoms of legionellosis?
Patients with Legionnaires’ disease usually have fever, chills, and a cough, which may be dry or may produce sputum. Some patients also have muscle aches, headache, tiredness, loss of appetite, and, occasionally, diarrhea. Laboratory tests may show that these patients’ kidneys are not functioning properly. Chest X-rays often show pneumonia. It is difficult to distinguish Legionnaires’ disease from other types of pneumonia by symptoms alone; other tests are required for diagnosis.

Persons with Pontiac fever experience fever and muscle aches and do not have pneumonia. They generally recover in 2 to 5 days without treatment.

The time between the patient’s exposure to the bacterium and the onset of illness for Legionnaires’ disease is 2 to 10 days; for Pontiac fever, it is shorter, generally a few hours to 2 days.

How is legionellosis diagnosed?
The diagnosis of legionellosis requires special tests not routinely performed on persons with fever or pneumonia. Therefore, a physician must consider the possibility of legionellosis in order to obtain the right tests.

Several types of tests are available. The most useful tests detect the bacteria in sputum, find Legionella antigens in urine samples, or compare antibody levels to Legionella in two blood samples obtained 3 to 6 weeks apart.

Who gets legionellosis?
People of any age may get Legionnaires’ disease, but the illness most often affects middle-aged and older persons, particularly those who smoke cigarettes or have chronic lung disease. Also at increased risk are persons whose immune system is suppressed by diseases such as cancer, kidney failure requiring dialysis, diabetes, or AIDS. Those that take drugs that suppress the immune system are also at higher risk. Pontiac fever most commonly occurs in persons who are otherwise healthy.

What is the treatment for legionellosis?
Erythromycin is the antibiotic currently recommended for treating persons with Legionnaires’ disease. In severe cases, a second drug, rifampin, may be used in addition. Other drugs are available for patients unable to tolerate erythromycin. Pontiac fever requires no specific treatment.