Ben felt lousy. He thought he had the flu, but when he didn’t feel better after a week, he went to the doctor. The doctor guessed that Ben had viral pneumonia, but then he asked Ben if he’d traveled recently in the desert southwest. “Yes,” said Ben, surprised. “We went hiking in Saguaro National Park last month.” The doctor ran some tests, and told Ben he was suffering from Valley fever.
What is Valley fever? Valley fever, also called coccidiodomycosis, is caused by a fungus that lives in the dry, dusty soil of certain desert areas of the U.S., including parts of Arizona, New Mexico, southern California, western Texas and eastern Washington state. It also is found in Mexico and areas of South America. The spores of the fungus are carried by the wind. If a person inhales the spores, they settle into the lungs and cause a flu-like illness or pneumonia. You cannot catch Valley fever from another person.
What are the symptoms? Many people who have inhaled the spores develop symptoms that make them think they have the flu, including fatigue, cough, fever, muscle and joint pain and a headache. Some people get a rash on their upper body or legs. The symptoms can be mild, but Dr. John N. Galgiani, director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence at University of Arizona, says, “In many patients it’s more debilitating than mononucleosis. These patients feel horrible, they can’t get out of bed or go to work and often they are sick for weeks or months.” The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) says complications include meningitis—and about 160 people die from the disease each year.
How common is Valley fever? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that about 10,000 cases are reported each year—but according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), 150,000 people each year will be infected. It is hard for experts to determine the exact number, because many patients are misdiagnosed or don’t report their symptoms.
Can I get it more than once? The IDSA says that while some people may fight the infection for a long time—even for their whole life—once our immune system has rid our body of the infection, it is very unlikely that we will get it again.
Who is at risk? The CDC says that seniors are most likely to be affected, but anyone who lives or travels where the fungus is present can be infected. People with a weakened immune system, people with diabetes, pregnant women and people who are black or Filipino are at higher risk of developing a severe form of the disease.
How is Valley fever diagnosed? The disease is diagnosed with a simple blood test—but many people are never tested because neither they nor their doctor suspects the cause of their symptoms. The IDSA is seeking to raise awareness of Valley fever among primary care physicians. Dr. Galgiani says that many patients “worry they have cancer or another disease, so getting correctly diagnosed puts a name to the illness and dispels that fear.” He adds, “Doctors need to ask patients with pneumonia about their travel history and if they’ve recently traveled to endemic areas, and need to consider Valley fever.”
Can Valley fever be treated? Sometimes the symptoms of Valley fever go away without any treatment. But a person’s doctor might prescribe an antifungal medication. The CDC estimates that as many as 40 percent of people diagnosed with Valley fever will need to be hospitalized.
Can Valley fever be prevented? Basically, no, if you’re spending time in an area where the fungus lives. There is no vaccine to prevent it, and while the CDC recommends that people stay out of blowing dust in the desert, the spores can be carried anywhere in the area, indoors or out. The best way to prevent serious illness is to be aware of the symptoms and report them right away so treatment can begin, if recommended, and patients can avoid receiving unnecessary treatment if their symptoms are mistaken for a different illness.