The symptoms are unmistakable; extreme fatigue, respiratory and muscular problems, fever, among others. It must be COVID-19, right? Well, that may not always be the case. It could be Legionnaires’ disease.
As businesses slowly start to reopen and facilities that stood empty and unused for over a year are now filled with people, experts see a rise in Legionella. These pathogenic bacteria cause a pneumonia-type illness called Legionnaires' disease and a mild flu-like illness called Pontiac fever.
Though often underdiagnosed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate nearly 10,000 cases of Legionnaires’ disease are reported each year, but that number is rising. Scientists measured an 800 percent spike in the condition since 2000.
Just recently, the state of Michigan witnessed a nearly 600 percent spike in legionnaires’ disease across 25 counties. Between July 1st and July 14th, healthcare providers treated 106 cases.
Now, researchers see the same potential impact in Utah. But what is Legionella, and why does it pose such a serious health threat? Here are five things to know about this pernicious bacteria and why we should be concerned.
1. Legionella bacteria often grows and spreads in human-made building water systems.
According to the CDC, Legionella bacteria occurs in lakes, streams, or other freshwater environments. But as buildings and water pipe systems sat dormant during the pandemic, warm water that sat in an unused water system created the ideal breeding ground for bacteria.
Standing water occurs in many places. We are exposed to hot tubs, decorative water fountains or waterfalls, unused sink faucets or showerheads, or industrial-sized cooling systems that contain water. When these devices or units are turned on, water containing Legionella spreads through tiny water droplets that people inhale. People exposed to this bacteria may develop flu-like symptoms often associated with Legionnaires’ disease or Pontiac Fever.
2. Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious.
Legionnaires’ disease isn’t spread from person to person. Instead, outbreaks occur from exposure to contaminated water. For instance, in 2019, 141 people were infected by contaminated water at a state fair hot tub display in North Carolina, which resulted in four deaths.
3. But Legionnaires’ disease is harmful.
Because the symptoms often include a loss of appetite, muscle aches, headaches, extreme fatigue, fever, and in some cases, severe respiratory problems, Legionnaire’s disease is often mistaken for COVID-19. Although it poses a health threat to everyone, Legionnaires’ disease is particularly harmful to people:
- Over the age of 50
- Smokers or former smokers
- People suffering from chronic lung disease
- Those with weakened immune systems
- People taking immunosuppressant drugs, such as those for lupus, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
People infected with Legionnaires’ disease must be treated with antibiotics. More importantly, experts need to identify the source of the Legionella bacteria.
4. Legionella contamination can be prevented.
The best way to prevent harmful bacteria growth is through water supply maintenance.
“This means water systems should be periodically inspected and, if necessary, disinfected,” explains the Association for Professionals In Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). “Water features and fountains should be routinely cleaned.”
We should note that home and car air-conditioning units do not use water to cool the air, so they are not a risk for Legionella growth.
5. The only way to ensure your water is safe is to have it tested by an expert.
By taking a small water sample, experts can trace your home water’s chemical contents. With these results, experts can determine the exact contents of your home’s water supply and can discuss any necessary changes to improve water safety and quality.
Water systems and quality differ from each community, but it also can vary from home to home, even from faucet to faucet. The only way to know for sure that your water environment is safe for your family is to have it tested by an expert.
As our communities reopen, it’s essential to know that the water systems of our homes, workplaces, and our favorite restaurants are functioning safely. Understanding the potential threats that we may face beyond the danger of COVID-19 is an important step for overall health.
To learn more about maintaining a safe and effective water environment, click here.