Masks for sale are displayed on a clothesline in the front yard of a house in Los Angeles, California on July 20, 2020 (AFP / Chris Delmas)

Face mask use does not lead to Legionnaires’ disease

Copyright AFP 2017-2020. All rights reserved.

Posts shared thousands of times on social media claim Legionnaires' disease, a serious type of pneumonia, can be contracted through reusable face masks, implying that it could be mistaken for COVID-19. This is false; experts say Legionnaires’ disease cannot be caught or spread via masks, and that it is not related to spikes in COVID-19.

“A caller to a radio talk show recently shared that his wife was hospitalized and told she had COVID and only a couple of days left to live. A doctor friend suggested she be tested for legionnaires disease because she wore the same mask every day all day long. Turns out it WAS legionnaires disease from the moisture and bacteria in her mask,” an August 6, 2020 Facebook post says

“She was given antibiotics and within two days was better. WHAT IF these ‘spikes’ in COVID are really something else due to mask wearing??” it says.

A screenshot of a Facebook post taken on August 10, 2020

Other examples of the claim can be found on Facebook -- here and here -- Twitter -- here -- and Instagram -- here and here

Legionnaires’ disease is a serious type of pneumonia caused by a bacteria called Legionella, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About 1 out of 10 people who contract it will die from the disease. Common sources of infection are found in very humid environments and complex water systems, such as decorative fountains, cooling towers, or large plumbing systems. 

When it comes to Legionella development, “places that we worry about are places with a lot of humidifying air,” Dr Taison Bell, critical care and infectious disease physician at the University of Virginia, told AFP by phone.

“It’s not something that can persistently live on a mask,” he added. “To say that the moisture from your own breath causes Legionella, that’s just not true.”

Shanta Whitaker, vice president of health policy at a government affairs firm, with a doctorate in microbiology from Yale University, also agreed that the “bacteria is ubiquitous in nature and not found on our skin, body.”

Research shows that Legionella is not contagious. It does not develop on dry surfaces and cannot be contracted by mold, according to the non-profit organization legionella.org.

And “you cannot contract Legionnaires’ disease from wearing face masks,” the website says

Although some symptoms can overlap in both diseases, such as fever and shortness of breath, others are only common to one, such as a loss of taste and smell in COVID-19 patients

“It does not connect with what’s going on with COVID-19,” Bell said.

“While there can be some overlap, they are different diseases in that Legionella disease is not one that spreads from person to person and is not expected to cause an epidemic or a pandemic, but more localized outbreaks that are limited to a building or a water source,” he said.

It “is not something that would spread throughout the population, from person to person.”

AFP Fact Check has debunked more than 600 examples of false or misleading information about the novel coronavirus crisis. A complete list of our fact checks on the topic in English can be found here.

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