What you need to know about valley fever now

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 →

Tags from the story
Written By
More from Jason Webb Read More

24 Comments

  • Mary says:
    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.
    • anonymous Jason Webb says:
      You're welcome! Dust storms can really affect breathing. Hopefully, your husband gets better!
  • Armand Paul says:
    Thanks for this very important information. I live in both CA and AZ and have for 28 years.
    • anonymous Jason Webb says:
      You bet! I'm happy it was useful for you.
  • thomas morrow says:
    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
  • Bryan says:
    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!
    • anonymous Jason Webb says:
      You are very welcome, and no, it's definitely a real condition.
  • Shirley A. Ard says:
    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.
    • anonymous Jason Webb says:
      You're welcome! I'm glad it could be useful for you.
  • Connie Bissen says:
    Can the valley fever be transmitted to another state  if it's on rugs you had outdoors during the storm? With a positive serve case??? 
  • Joann Assante says:
    I was going in for hip replacement surgery when they discovered a nodule on my lung during pre op testing.  I had ct scans and a pet scan.  It looked like cancer although the pet scan showed nothing.  My lung doctor was 99% sure it was valley fever because of the location.  He told me have the hip surgery done and we will ct the lung in 6 months.  4 weeks after hip surgery I had ct scan and the nodule changed slightly.  Dr wanted a biopsy but it was too close to my heart so I went to Dr Kim thoracic surgeon at Banner and had lung resection.  It was valley fever.  Thank you for letting me share this!  Im doing great!
  • Hilary says:
    I’ve had valley fever and didn’t realize you become immune after having it. Is that correct? Also, are kids susceptible?
  • Shawn Murphy says:
    Both my wife & I had Valley Fever getting it in the 1st year of us living in Arizona. She had the rash you referred too besides many of the other symptoms. 
    I had the usual symptoms. I had a nodjial in my left lung & she had a number of them in both lungs. They remained benign during the time our M.D. followed us. 
    We’ve since moved back to Wa. State
  • Linda says:
    People should also watch for signs in their pets including fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, coughing, and/or limping, especially in dogs.
  • curtis james says:
    I've had valley fever since August 2013.  No treatment except an inhaler. (By the way, price is nearly $500 per month.)  My Dog has it also, from digging and sniffing gopher holes.
  • Cris says:
    Good article, everyone should be aware of Valley Fever symptoms. I had VF after living in Phoenix area for 10 years. The fatigue was unreal! The antifungal meds worked, though one third of my hair fell out from the meds. And I guess the lung nodules will show up on future X-rays so be sure to tell future MDs re the VF bout. 
  • Mary Shaughnessy says:
    I moved to the SW in 1989 from the Midwest.  After living here almost 20 years I got pneumonia at the end of a school teaching year.  My boss wouldn't let me have time off, so I struggled through that and finally got to my doctor who sent me to a lung specialist.  He treated me with antibiotics and sent me on my way.  I was sick all summer that  year and continued to feel tired.  In 2010 my new doctor who had been watching through chest x-rays sent me to have a biopsy and the results were negative........but I was still feeling no better.  Off I went to a thoracic surgeon who believed the doctor that did the biopsy "missed" testing the spot.  Had to go through another biopsy........and this time it showed I had three different things that were very unusual.......old valley fever, typical carcinoid cancer (which is a slow-growing usually harmless cancer and a-typical carcinoid cancer which can be more aggressive.  I am tested yearly to see if changes are occurring.  Feel like a time bomb ready to go off at any time.........Just know there are many different scenarios when it comes to Valley Fever.  Thanks for letting me share my story in hopes of helping others. 
  • Jamie says:
    I have been treated for Valley Fever since May this year.  I was actually on a vacation in Wisconsin when I ended up in the hospital. Needless to say, they did not know exactly what they were dealing with and had to really go "back to the books" to get educated on it. I was really ill with the cough, night sweats, rash, mouth sores and itching. I am on an anti-fungal medication now and am being monitored by my pulmonary doctor here in Tucson with bloodwork and lung CT scans. I hope to be off the medication soon, as it too, has some adverse side effects. 
  • Monique says:
    Now I understand. Very helpful information. I am from the San Diego California area and I moved here in 2007. In 2012 casa grande hospital told me a had pneumonia, and other illnesses. It actually was found to be valley fever but that was only because my husband took me to the emergency room three times and less than 30 days because I had difficulty breathing. It really hurt to breathe and yes the body aches. the hospital that was been known as Casa Grande Hospital policy is that any patient that comes to the emergency room three times in less than 30 days they have to stay overnight. So the next afternoon after the hospital ran numerous tests a lung doctor came and visited me to tell me that I have valley fever and I have to stay for at least 5 days. By the grace of God I am so glad I continued to go to the emergency room because a lot of people would just pass it off, and at times I really wanted to. please by all means any type of symptoms go get checked immediately.
  • Karina says:
    Thank you for this article. Please clarify, there is no treatment for Valley Fever? If someone gets it they just become immune (does that mean they have it for life) ?
  • Marcey Honodel says:
    Very insightful, we will continue to stay inside during dust storms and try to protect ourselves.  Thank you for the information, it is very helpful,
  • Donah says:
    I lived in Phoenix for 25 years before moving to Vermont for 14 years and now back in Phoenix.
    
    In Vermont I volunteered at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and a TB test was required. It came back borderline. I told my Dr. that I had lived in Phoenix and knew that Valley Fever could affect TB testing...she had never heard of Valley Fever but researched it...I was passed on the TB test and volunteered. Valley Fever can affect a lot of test outcomes...thank you for this article. Also..pets should never be left outside either during a dust storm too. Thank you....
    
  • Valerie Bailey says:
    I ended up with the long spores and CT scans to see if they would in a large they remain the same but the long spore is still there,  Will this ever go away ?
  • randy says:
    o the joint pains go away or do they stay. I had valley fever in my lung very small am  one of the lucky ones I guess but I do have  really bad joint pains was in my legs now affecting my elbows.
    along with night sweats just wondering.was diagonised about 4 years ago
  • Ruthie says:
    Breathing problems can effect you indoors as well.  Take precaution by cleaning out your vent system and the vents.  Put wet paper towels over the vents to help collect any thing when you first turn on the air conditioner or heat system.  Clean your space so dust does not move around inside your house.  Use a air filtering system to clean the air in your house.  Always, put something over you mouth when working outside, and avoid dust storms.  Stay inside on bad high pollination days
  • Susie says:
    We live in Kingman, AZ and experienced our first dust storm a few weeks ago. I was aware of the Valley Fever possibly so stayed indoors.  Very thankful we do not live in Phoenix where they experience this issue quite often.  Thanks for the information!!
  • PATRICIA MILLER says:
    WE ARE LONG TIME RESIDENTS OF AZ, AND YET THE SYMPTOMS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
    
    SURELY FIT MY WIFE WHO IS 80. SHE HAS HAD A TERRIBLE COUGH SINCE OCTOBER, AND EVEN THOUGH WE HAVE SEEN MANY DR'S HAVE YET TO GET ANY REAL HELP. WE WILL NOW FOLLOW THOUGH AND ASK THEM WHAT CAN BE DONE? ANY SUGGESTIONS WOULD BE GREATLY APPRECIATED. THANK YOU.
     GEORGE MILLER
  • Blanca Mata says:
    Very helpful info..thank you. How long does it take for meds to start working and symptoms start to get better? What can be done at home to help when short of breath or chest compression is very bothersome? Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

*