Simply breathing in the wrong place could put you in danger of suffering a life-threatening lung infection.

Feeling ill? Your cough might be more than seasonal allergies or a nasty cold. Every year, early autumn sees an upsurge in cases of a severe form of pneumonia called Legionnaires’ disease, according to the New Jersey Herald. And if you’re like many Legionnaires’ disease patients, you never even realized you were being exposed to dangerous bacteria.

If you have flu-like symptoms, read on – it just might save your life!

Legionnaires’ Disease Defined

Legionnaire’s disease is a severe form of life-threatening pneumonia. It occurs when a certain kind if airborne bacteria infects the lungs.

When Legionnaires’ disease strikes, patients experience serious flu-like symptoms and breathing difficulties. They need medical care right away. Often, patients have to be hospitalized. They receive antibiotics, breathing treatments, and IV fluids during their hospital stay.

Where Does Legionnaires’ Disease Come From?

If you’re exposed to this life-threatening form of pneumonia, you might never even know it.

The Legionella pneumophila bacteria, which cause the lung infection known as Legionnaires’ disease, are part of nature. They’re found in creeks, ponds, even potting soil. But it’s in complex indoor water systems that these bacteria really thrive.

At warmer temperatures, Legionella bacteria can multiply rapidly. The bigger the plumbing system, the better for Legionella – which is why patients rarely contract Legionnaires’ disease from Legionella exposure in their own homes.

So where do patients encounter the potentially deadly bacteria? The most common places include:

  • Schools
  • Hotels
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Cruise ships
  • Other structures with large, complex plumbing and water systems

Specifically, the bacteria emerge in airborne droplets in places near:

  • Decorative fountains
  • Swimming pools, hot tubs, and whirlpools
  • Showers
  • Faucets
  • Mist sprayers
  • Humidifiers
  • Air conditioner cooling towers
  • Hot water tanks

Where Did Legionnaire’s Disease Get Its Unusual Name?

The year was 1976. The place, Philadelphia. Around 2,000 people showed up at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel for a three-day American Legion conference that coincided with the Bicentennial celebration.

Something sinister lurked in the water – and in tiny droplets in the air – those three days.

Bellevue-Stratford Hotel Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, PA.51-PHILA.344-1 (public domain).

Shortly after the conference ended, attendees began dying. Though the causes of deaths at first appeared to be heart attacks, some of the victims were suspiciously young. A doctor realized that the sudden deaths of so many conference attendees couldn’t be just a coincidence.

And he was right. An investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later found Legionella bacteria not just in the cooling tower of the hotel’s air conditioner, but spread throughout the building.

The exposure proved devastating. Within the first week, more than 130 American Legion conference attendees were hospitalized, and 25 were dead. By the time the rash of deaths stopped, 221 people had come down with the serious lung infection. And 34 lost their lives to it.

This tragedy went down in history as the first known outbreak of Legionella infection anywhere in the United States.