What is Legionella Pneumonia?

D. Jeffress

Legionella pneumonia is a serious type of acute bacterial lung infection. A person can develop an active infection when he or she inhales strains of Legionella bacteria, which are hearty pathogens that thrive in warm, wet environments. Symptoms may include a wet cough, breathing difficulties, and an extremely high fever. Early treatment in the form of oral or intravenous antibiotics is essential to prevent major complications.

People who smoke cigarettes are at high risk for developing pneumonia.
People who smoke cigarettes are at high risk for developing pneumonia.

Also called Legionnaire's disease, legionella pneumonia is a fairly rare type of lung infection. The bacteria responsible can be found worldwide in damp, dark environments, including lakes, swimming pools, and large air conditioning units. Humans become infected when they breathe in contaminated airborne water molecules. Bacteria quickly invade the lining of the lungs, where they mature, multiply, and spread to surrounding tissue structures. People who smoke cigarettes and have weakened immune systems because of chronic diseases are at the highest risk of developing active infections.

Legionella pneumonia can be contracted by inhaling contaminated water molecules.
Legionella pneumonia can be contracted by inhaling contaminated water molecules.

Symptoms of legionella pneumonia usually develop within a week of coming into contact with bacteria. The first signs may include a worsening fever, chills, coughing, and fatigue. Shortness of breath and chronic chest pains tend to arise as infection spreads throughout the lungs. Without treatment, a person may start to cough up blood, have severe muscle aches, and experience bouts of mental confusion and dizziness. Respiratory failure is a possible complication if medical care is not sought within the first two weeks of infection.

Legionella pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose right away because the symptoms resemble many other types of acute respiratory infections. Blood and mucus samples are analyzed in hospital laboratories to confirm the presence of Legionella bacteria. Patients typically need to undergo x-rays, computerized tomography scans, and other tests so doctors can gauge the severity of infection and lung damage. Treatment decisions are made immediately after confirming the diagnosis to prevent the condition from worsening.

Most cases of legionella pneumonia can be cured with antibiotics if it is discovered and treated early. Oral doses of azithromycin, ciprofloxacin, or a similar antibiotic can usually eradicate the bacteria and put an end to symptoms in about ten days. Patients who have severe symptoms may need to be hospitalized to receive intravenous antibiotic therapy. If necessary, doctors can administer oxygen treatment and aspirate built-up fluid in the lungs with specialized surgical needles. Most patients who receive prompt care are able to recover from legionella pneumonia in about one month with no lasting health problems.

Coughing is one symptom of legionella pneumonia.
Coughing is one symptom of legionella pneumonia.

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