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Legionnaires’ disease: What you need to know

Written By: G. Ashley Johnson, UT Physicians | Updated: July 19, 2023
Senior woman standing in kitchen with left hand on her chest, experiencing discomfort

People infected with Legionella bacteria experience symptoms similar to pneumonia.

In late June, Fort Bend County health officials were notified of multiple cases of Legionnaires’ disease localized to a seniors community in the city of Fulshear.

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of lung infection caused by bacteria known as Legionella. The name stems from an outbreak which occurred in 1976 at a convention of the American Legion in Philadelphia. When the bacteria was identified and found to have been bred in the cooling tower of the convention hotel’s air conditioning system, the incident prompted new regulations worldwide for the health monitoring of climate control systems.

Luis Z. Ostrosky, MD
Luis Z. Ostrosky, MD

UT Physicians infectious diseases expert Luis Z. Ostrosky, MD, explains how this infection can lead to highly adverse health conditions and warrants immediate medical attention.

“Infection from Legionella bacteria can cause severe pneumonia, sepsis, and meningitis, which can be fatal. While not highly common, such an infection should be taken seriously and immediately addressed by a medical professional,” said Ostrosky, who is professor, division director of infectious diseases, and Memorial Hermann Chair with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

Ostrosky added that few cases of Legionnaires’ disease are generally seen in a metropolitan area. Most hospitals may only see one to two cases in a year, and it is rare to see clusters of cases specific to a geographic location. Occurrences can be attributed to contamination of either an air conditioning system or a water fixture such as a large fountain, hot tub, or spa pool. The Legionella bacteria is not transmitted person to person, but rather through inhalation when it becomes airborne.

The symptoms associated with Legionnaires’ disease are shortness of breath, sustained cough, and fever, which is similar to signs of pneumonia.

“If experiencing Legionnaires’ disease symptoms or observing them among others who are congregating in the same space like a building, it may mean a presence of the bacteria,” Ostrosky explained. “In such a case, you should definitely see your doctor or go to a hospital to be evaluated.”

Detection, response, and next steps

When medical professionals at a hospital identify a cluster of infections originating from the same facility or location, the normal protocol is to contact the local health department, who will then open an investigation to determine if there has been contamination of a central air conditioning system or a water fixture.

For the cases in Fulshear, Ostrosky believes there is likely additional sensitivity given the ages of the individuals infected. He adds that the condition can be dangerous if contracted by small children or seniors, as well as people who have compromised immune systems. The community’s clubhouse was closed for contractors to evaluate the air and water systems and remediate where necessary.

“Because Legionnaires’ disease can be highly aggressive, it is important to contain it as quickly as possible,” Ostrosky said.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.