What Westchester Needs To Know About Legionnaires' Disease

The Bronx has seen a spike Legionnaires’ disease cases, and now 12 people have been confirmed to have the disease. But what is Legionnaire’s disease, and should we be worried that it’ll travel up to Westchester? We spoke with WESTMED’s Sandra Kesh, M.D., who’s board-certified in Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease & International Medicine, for a little insight.

What is Legionnaire’s Disease?

Legionnaire’s disease is a type of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria. These bacteria are found naturally in rivers and lakes, but most cases of Legionnaires’ Disease can be traced to man-made water systems which, if not carefully maintained, can promote growth of the bacteria.

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What are its symptoms? How can you tell it apart from the regular seasonal flu?

Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease can include fever, chills, cough, muscle aches, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, confusion, and, occasionally, diarrhea. It can be difficult to distinguish from regular seasonal flu, as they share many of the same symptoms. Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease typically begin two to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria. Legionnaires’ disease can be very serious but most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics, and otherwise healthy people usually recover from the infection.

How is it transmitted?

This infection is most commonly acquired from inhaling infected water mist from a contaminated source. The risk of exposure depends on how much bacteria is present in the water mist, how much a person breathes in, and individual health factors. This infection cannot be spread from person to person. Legionnaires’ disease most often affects middle-aged and older people, particularly smokers and those with chronic lung disease. People with compromised immune systems from cancer, kidney diseases, diabetes, or untreated HIV infection, and people who take immunosuppressive medications (like chemotherapy) are also at higher risk.

What should you do if you think you might have it?

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If you develop symptoms suggestive of Legionnaire’s disease and you are at risk for severe infection due to conditions such as those described earlier, you should see your medical doctor for evaluation.

How likely is it that a breakout in the Bronx will mean a case in Westchester? Should we be worried?

There has been a recent spike in reported cases in the Bronx, and preliminary test results trace the outbreak to contaminated cooling towers in the Co-Op City complex. Eight of the 12 recent cases in that borough have been diagnosed among residents of that housing complex. The cooling towers have been shut down for cleaning and chlorination. Although other potential sources are being investigated, there is no evidence that any similar contamination has occurred in other residential areas, including in Westchester County. It is also important to remember that most people who are exposed to the bacteria do not become ill.

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