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.
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.
“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.
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:
- Chest pain
- 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.