Legionnaires' Disease and Pontiac Fever (Legionellosis)

  • Medical Author:
    George Schiffman, MD, FCCP

    Dr. Schiffman received his B.S. degree with High Honors in biology from Hobart College in 1976. He then moved to Chicago where he studied biochemistry at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. He attended Rush Medical College where he received his M.D. degree in 1982 and was elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society. He completed his Internal Medicine internship and residency at the University of California, Irvine.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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How is the diagnosis of Legionnaires' disease made?

Laboratory tests may include a modest increase in white blood cells, mild abnormalities in liver function studies, a low sodium in the blood, and even some decreased function of the kidneys. Nevertheless, these features can also be seen with a variety of different types of pneumonia. Chest X-rays often demonstrate abnormal densities (areas of that lungs that on the X-ray film appear whiter). However, it is difficult to distinguish Legionnaires' disease from other types of pneumonia by symptoms and chest X-ray alone. Additional specific tests are required for diagnosis.

These other tests are specialized and are not routinely performed on people with fever or pneumonia. Several types of tests are available. The most useful test uses a urine sample to detect identifiable proteins of the Legionnaires' bacterium (Legionella antigens). This test has the disadvantage of only testing for Legionella pneumophila serogroup 1 (this is the organism responsible for most of the cases). Additionally, detecting the bacteria in a culture of the sputum may be helpful. Lastly, tests that compare antibody levels of Legionella in two blood samples obtained three to six weeks apart showing a fourfold rise in the antibodies in the blood against the bacterium can be confirmatory after the disease is gone.

Because these tests complement each other, a positive result from each test when Legionnaires' disease is suspected increases the probability of confirming the diagnosis. However, because none of the laboratory tests is 100% sensitive, the diagnosis of legionellosis is not excluded even if one or more of the tests is negative. Of the available tests, the most specific is culture isolation of the bacterium from secretions from the respiratory tract.

Who develops Legionnaires' disease?

People of any age can develop Legionnaires' disease, but the illness most often affects middle-aged and older people, particularly those who smoke cigarettes or have chronic lung disease, as these individuals have a greater likelihood of developing any respiratory illness.

People at an increased risk for Legionnaires' disease also include people whose immune systems are suppressed by diseases such as cancer, kidney failure requiring dialysis, diabetes, or AIDS. Those who take medications that suppress the immune system are also at risk including those chronically on steroids.

Pontiac fever most commonly occurs in people who are otherwise healthy.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/23/2016

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