What you need to know about valley fever now

Valley fever: Woman sneezing and holding tissue while laying in bed

In the sands of the southwestern deserts lives a fungus called Coccidioides. It usually doesn’t cause a problem unless the ground is broken—by off-road tires or dust storms. When this happens, the spores take to the air and, if breathed in, can cause valley fever.

Valley fever, also called desert rheumatism, San Joaquin Valley Fever and coccidioidomycosis, is not transmitted from person to person, but by breathing in the Coccidioides spores.

What is valley fever?

Valley fever occurs when someone develops a fungal infection from breathing in the Coccidioides spores, explained John Galgiani, MD, a professor of medicine in infectious diseases at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine who leads the University of Arizona’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence. In Arizona, the fungal infection is more common during the monsoon season, which runs from the middle of June to the middle of September.

While living in areas where the fungus lives puts you at risk of getting an infection, Dr. Galgiani said many people won’t get sick.

“Only one out of three infections cause an illness, but when it does, it is typically a pneumonia, causing chest pain, cough and night sweats,” he said.

Other common symptoms are painful joints, skin rashes and a great deal of fatigue. Because of these symptoms, some people call valley fever desert rheumatism. Although the body’s immune response eventually controls most of these infections, it often takes many weeks to many months to completely resolve.

In a very small percentage of cases, the disease will go from the lungs to other parts of the body causing meningitis, body sores and more. People most at risk of these severe complications are those with compromised immune systems, such as people who have had an organ transplant or people with AIDS. If this happens, it needs significant medical care.

How can you protect yourself?

Dr. Galgiani said it’s a good idea to stay indoors during a dust storm and keep doors and windows shut, but it’s not a guarantee against getting infected. The real key, he said, is being educated about the disease. He cited data from the Arizona Department of Health Services, which shows that people who know about valley fever before they get sick get a diagnosis sooner than those who have never heard of it. Therefore, they seek treatment quicker.

“Awareness of this disease is very valuable to improve the overall health of our communities,” Dr. Galgiani said.

What are the symptoms and treatment?

Most people who contract valley fever show no symptoms. For those who get valley fever and seek medical attention, the symptoms typically include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Skin rash
  • Joint aches

In most cases, patients with valley fever require no treatment, and once they have had it, they become immune. Physical therapy can often help get rid of the fatigue. Treatments for severe cases may consist of an antifungal medication.

Although, people with compromised immune systems may have a past infection come back to life.

How else can valley fever affect you?

Chest X-ray findings that result from valley fever can easily be confused with cancer. Determining if it is cancer or the fungus causing the chest findings may require a biopsy or surgery, according to Dr. Galgiani.

“One out of three pneumonias are caused by valley fever in Phoenix,” said Dr. Galgiani. The lung infection is frequently assumed to be caused by bacteria and treated with antibiotics, which does not help because they have no effect on a fungus.

“So remembering that valley fever is very common here very important,” said Dr. Galgiani.

Remember

Knowledge is your best defense against valley fever. Know the symptoms, and if you start to experience them, ask your doctor for the blood test.

 

Also read: 4 Tips to Help You Breathe Easier During Wildfires →

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9 Comments

  • Thank you. We are new to this area. My husband went out in a dust storm to put chairs up and ended up in the ER that night with breathing problems. Now he is on an inhaler.

  • I had valley fever in the eighties along with pneumonia. In the late eighties I went to Michigan on a job, for that job it required a chest xray, the doctor even after I had told him that I had had valley fever, he thought I had lung cancer, so after six months of further testing they operated, and did a lung resection and then said yes it was valley fever.
    The surgeon was the head of thorasic surgery at Henry Ford hospital Detroit.
    Tom

  • I deeply appreciate this article! I am new to the area from the Midwest and only thought it was people jerking my chain. Thanks for the verification and the information on the symptoms and differentiating it as a fungus and not bacterial in origin. Thank you!

  • Thank you for this information. I had Valley Fever so bad they thought I would die. This was many years ago. I moved to Kansas 2 years ago and have another problem with anemia but I am better with anemia and I still have the symptoms of Valley Fever. I will give my Oncologist/Histologist or my MD doc this information. Thank you again for this information.

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