Legionella Bacteria Symptoms Explained After Duke University Outbreak

Dozens of people are being treated for illness after likely being exposed to Legionella bacteria at a university campus in North Carolina.

Duke University said in a statement posted Thursday that approximately 84 individuals had potentially been exposed to the bacteria while attending the K Academy—a basketball camp for adults that took place between August 11 and 15 at the campus in Durham.

The individuals reported flu-like symptoms, including fever, muscle fatigue, nausea and respiratory problems.

Infection with Legionella bacteria can cause Legionnaires' disease—a serious type of pneumonia—as well as a less serious illness known as Pontiac fever. These illnesses are collectively known as legionellosis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,) the symptoms of Legionnaires' disease include coughing, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches and headache. Other symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea and confusion have also been associated with this disease.

The symptoms of Legionnaires' disease tend to appear between two and 10 days after exposure to the bacteria, although it can take longer.

Pontiac fever is less severe than Legionnaires' disease, with the primary symptoms being fever and muscle aches. Unlike Legionnaires' disease patients, individuals with Pontiac fever do not have pneumonia—inflammation of the tissue in one or both lungs.

Pontiac fever symptoms can appear anywhere between a few hours and three days after exposure to the bacteria. They usually last less than a week.

People can become sick with the bacteria when they breathe in small, contaminated water droplets in the air, or if they accidentally swallow water containing Legionella into the lungs.

The bacteria are found naturally in freshwater environments, such as lakes and streams. But they can also grow and multiply in human-made water systems, such as showerheads and sink faucets; cooling towers; hot tubs; decorative fountains and water features; hot water tanks and heaters; large, complex plumbing systems.

The bacteria do not usually spread among people, although, this may be possible in very rare circumstances, according to the CDC.

Duke University said infectious disease specialists from the institution worked with federal, state and local public health officials to identify the source of the exposure, which was likely a training room in the Schwartz-Butters Building.

The university closed the training room in order to carry out mitigation and cleaning efforts. No other spaces in the building were affected and there is no continuing risk to employees or visitors, the university said in the statement.

The individuals who reported illness are being treated at Duke or by their local physicians and all of them are expected to recover fully.

Newsweek has contacted Duke University for comment.

Legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaire's disease
An illustration showing Legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires' disease and Pontiac fever. iStock