Legionnaires’ Disease Is Spreading in Hawaii: This Is What You Should Know About the Disease and How to Stay Safe

In Hawaii, several cases of a deadly health condition called Legionnaire’s disease sparked widespread worry about an infection that’s just as scary as it sounds.

While Queen’s Medical Center in Oahu has since taken steps to prevent any further disease, you might have a few questions about how this happened in the first place. Aren’t hospitals supposed to be safe and sanitary?

First, it’s important to understand how people develop the disease — and why it’s harder to prevent than it might seem.

What is Legionnaires’ disease?

woman coughing

Woman coughing | iStock.com

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe, often fatal form of pneumonia. Many people who develop the condition end up in intensive care because of its health risks — and don’t survive.

The bacteria that cause such a severe condition affect a person’s lungs, making it difficult to breathe properly. This often causes organ failure.

How do you get Legionnaires’ disease?

The infection is caused by bacteria that multiply in freshwater sources like fountains, swimming pools, and large water systems in hospitals and hotels.

Just because you’re exposed to the bacteria doesn’t mean you’ll get Legionnaires’ disease. Some people, especially those who smoke, are more likely to develop an infection when they do come into contact with it.

What are the symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease?

The condition begins with symptoms often confused for pneumonia or the flu. Symptoms become more severe as the disease progresses, and can include:

  • Muscle pain
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Fever at or above 104 degrees
  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Even with medical intervention, the disease can cause septic shock and respiratory and kidney failure.

Are you at risk?

Person holding a lit cigarette

Person holding a lit cigarette | Terroa/iStock/Getty Images

When headlines flood your news feeds with fears of deadly diseases, it’s normal to assess your own risk of dying from the same conditions.

The good news is, your risk of actually getting it after exposure to the bacteria is┬áprobably lower than you might think — depending on a few key factors.

  • Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious; you can’t get it from someone else.
  • Smokers, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are most likely to develop the disease.
  • Most large outbreaks occur in large buildings and other community settings due to the spread of bacteria, not person-to-person contact.

Hospitals and nursing homes are several locations that officials worry about the most. Germs spread easily in these buildings, and those staying there are either sick or in their 60s and above — both dangerous and uncontrollable risk factors that not only make them more vulnerable to developing the disease, but increase their chances of dying from it.

There’s not a whole lot you can do about your age or many of the conditions that might have weakened your immune system. B

How to prevent Legionnaires’ disease

There isn’t a vaccine or other preventative measure you can take to avoid infection. It’s generally up to building owners and managers to maintain their water systems, check for contamination, and respond to the presence of Legionella bacteria.

If you’re a member of any of the populations mentioned above and you’re worried about Legionnaire’s disease, you can take extra precautions if you’re in a location more susceptible to widespread infection — such as sticking to bottled water on a cruise ship or in a hotel.

Mayo Clinic does suggest that people who smoke should consider stopping the habit to further guard themselves against Legionnaire’s.

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