Varsha Dandavate, MD, is an internal medicine physician and infectious disease specialist on staff at Banner Estrella Medical Center in Phoenix.
Question: What exactly is valley fever and how is it transmitted? Does it need to be treated?
Answer: For people new to Arizona or who are unfamiliar with valley fever, it's a fungal infection specific to the hot and dry climate of the Southwest. The fungus that causes valley fever thrives in the desert soil. When the soil is stirred up by construction, weather, farming, and so on, highly contagious spores become airborne and can be inhaled or ingested.
Valley fever usually infects the lungs, but can also affect other areas of the body, such as the brain, causing meningitis. Symptoms, when noticeable, usually include fever, coughing, chest and body aches, fatigue and shortness of breath, much like pneumonia. A red rash is also common, which may or may not be painful.
Each year roughly 100,000 new cases of valley fever are estimated, yet most people do not experience notable symptoms and never know they had the infection, as illness is self-limiting. Still, severe infections can occur, especially in those with certain risk factors, such as women who are pregnant, older adults, and people with diabetes or weakened immune systems.
Since symptoms are not always distinguishable from other infections, doctors often test for and diagnose valley fever using blood tests or sputum cultures. Treatment, other than rest, is generally not necessary. But, people with more serious cases that do not improve over time may be prescribed antifungal medications.
Wearing masks when working outdoors, wetting soil before digging, dusting your home regularly with a damp cloth, and closing windows and staying indoors during dust storms are a few methods to minimize exposure to valley fever.
If you notice symptoms and your condition doesn't improve with time and rest, see your physician to determine if you have valley fever and if medical treatment is necessary.
Reviewed December 2010