Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis)

By:    Published: May 3, 2012

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If you live in an area that is dry and has low rainfall, you may be at risk of a fungal infection known as valley fever. Although it may not sound so alarming, it is a serious fungal infection that should be treated as soon as possible.

Definition

Valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, is caused by the Coccidioides immitis or Coccidioides posadasii fungi, which thrive in alkaline desert soils and areas with mild winters and dry, arid summers. They are mostly found in southern Arizona, Nevada, northern Mexico, Central America and the San Joaquin Valley in California (hence the name of the disease).

Valley fever symptoms happen when an individual inhales the spores of the fungus, and the organism takes host in the lungs. Spores can be easily spread into the air and dust via construction, walking or the wind, so it is estimated that 30-60 percent of individuals living in parts endemic to the fungus have been exposed to the organism. While in most cases, valley fever goes away by itself, acute and serious cases can cause further complications if the fungus moves from the lungs to other parts of the body causing other medical problems.

Signs And symptoms

Since the disease is most commonly caused via inhalation of the fungal spores, signs can appear as little as 7 days after exposure. Initial symptoms are similar to that of flu and may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Chest pains of differing levels
  • Chills and night sweats
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Spotty, red skin rash on the upper body or limbs
  • Joint pain in the knees or ankles

Symptoms of valley fever may worsen and turn chronic. They mostly resemble symptoms of tuberculosis or pneumonia and can be extremely uncomfortable. Some of such signs include:

  • Low grade fever
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent cough
  • Persistent chest pains
  • Blood colored or laced sputum
  • Nodules in the lungs that appear to look like tumors

Since the body can sometimes clear itself of the fungus, symptoms can go away after a week or so, although it is always recommended to seek medical attention. However, if it persists past three weeks, seek medical care immediately to get rid of the fungus in your system. If the fungus moves to another part of your body, it can cause further medical complications.

Risks Of Dissemination

If signs and symptoms are not treated properly, valley fever can migrate, or disseminate, to other parts of the body and cause other very serious medical complications. Most of the time, the organism will migrate from the lungs to the skin, bones, liver, brain, heart and the meninges (membrane that protect the nervous system). Dissemination of the fungus can cause debilitating, and even life threatening conditions. Some risks include:

  • Meningitis, a serious infection of the membranes of the brain and spinal cord, which can become deadly
  • Spinal, bone, and skull lesions that are extremely painful
  • Skin lesions, including nodules and ulcers. They can also be accompanied by other skin diseases due to the compromised state
  • Severe and chronic pneumonia, which can become fatal to those who have weak or defected immune systems
  • Bone or joint infection, including painful swellings
  • Heart inflammation
  • Urinary tract problems
  • Ruptured lung nodules, which are extremely painful and makes it difficult to breathe

If you are a person at higher risk of getting valley fever, be sure to take note of initial symptoms and seek medical care to avoid fungal dissemination.

Risk Factors

Here are some people who may be at higher risk of contracting valley fever than others:

  • People with compromised immune systems (such as individuals with HIV or cancer)
  • People who received organ transplants
  • Pregnant women
  • People who utilizes chronic corticosteroid therapy
  • People who live or travel to southwestern regions of the United States
  • Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians have higher levels of dissemination
  • Men have higher dissemination levels than women

There are currently no preventative methods against valley fever, except to stay away from endemic regions.

Treatment

Usually, valley fever goes away by itself in otherwise generally healthy individuals. Otherwise, doctors can prescribe a variety of antifungal medications to help clear the organism. Therapy may vary depending on the individual and the length of time a certain medication is taken. So far, there are no over the counter options for treating valley fever, so it is best to seek medical opinion if there are suspicions of valley fever.

Now that you know about this disease, be sure to take precautions if you are planning a trip to high-risk regions in the United States.

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