Monday, July 1, 2013

Valley Fever: Is the Epidemic in Your Neighborhood?

Do you live in, or travel to, the southwestern states or abroad?  If so, you need to know about valley fever, a debilitating and potentially deadly illness.

Alarmingly, the valley fever danger zone is expected to widen; experts believe that hotter temperatures may cause the habitat of the mold spores that carry valley fever to expand beyond the current zone. 

Are you at risk?  Read on to make sure you understand valley fever risks, valley fever symptoms, and valley fever treatment options.

What is valley fever?

This debilitating illness comes from a common fungus found primarily in the southwestern U.S., as well as Mexico, Central America, and South America.  The valley fever fungus, also known as Coccidioides, lives in soil. Simply inhaling particles in the air from this fungal soil is enough to make you ill with valley fever, also known as Coccidioidomycosis.

Not everyone who breathes in the valley fever fungus will get valley fever.  Those who do get it usually develop flu-like symptoms.  However, unlike most flus, valley fever symptoms often lasts for weeks, or even months.

The severity of the valley fever symptoms differs from one victim to the next.  For those hit hardest by valley fever, the infection spreads, going from the lungs to the rest of the body.  When this happens, some have suffered meningitis or even death.

How big of a threat is the valley fever outbreak?

Valley fever is under close public health surveillance by the CDC in 15 states. In 2010 alone, there were over 16,000 reported cases, most of them in Arizona and California, and the annual number of cases has been increasing in recent years.

A March 2013 CDC article states that more than 20,000 new cases of valley fever are reported each year in the United States.  The number could be much higher though, as scientists believe that many more cases go undiagnosed. Some researchers put the valley fever estimate at more than 150,000 people affected annually, with many of its victims not knowing why they are sick or with what.

Who is at risk of getting valley fever?

Who you know or associate with does not affect your risk; valley fever is not contracted from others, only from contact with the Coccidioides mold.  Factors that do increase your risk:
  • Where you live or travel to matters, as mentioned above.   The CDC’s valley fever risk map below shows the higher-risk areas in the U.S., where valley fever in endemic:
    Valley fever map
  • Have you recently moved to an endemic area?  Those who do are statistically more likely to get infected by valley fever than current residents.
  • While anyone can get valley fever, age can increase risk.  Valley Fever is most often contracted by older adults, particularly those 60 and older.
  • Other demographics groups that are at a greater risk for developing the severe forms of valley fever include African Americans, Asians, women in their third trimester of pregnancy, and those with weak immune systems.
  • Weather or natural events, such as earthquakes and dust storms, can be a risk factor too.  Outbreaks of valley fever sometimes happen when events like these disturb large amounts of soil.


Symptoms of Coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever) 

The  valley fever symptoms usually appear between within the first three weeks after exposure to the fungus.  If you’re lucky, the valley fever fungus may cause just very mild flu-like symptoms that go away on their own.  If you develop a more severe infection, you may experience fever, Image of Skin lesions due to Coccidioides immitiscough, headache, muscle aches, joint pain in the knees, joint pain in the ankles, or skin lesions/rash on the upper trunk or on your extremities, Such as the one shown here.  One valley fever victim described symptoms as utterly sapping energy reserves.

In the most advanced cases of valley fever, you can expect skin lesions, meningitis, chronic pneumonia, bone infection, or joint infection.

The one good piece of news regarding your risk of getting valley fever: once you get valley fever, your body develops immunity that will protect you against future infections. That said, some have experienced a "relapse" – symptoms getting worse after initially getting better.

What should I do if I am exposed to valley fever spores?

If you feel you have been exposed to the fungus and develop symptoms of valley fever, contact your healthcare provider (or contact the Occupational Health Department at your business if you had an exposure at work or in a laboratory.

There are no over-the-counter medications for valley fever and there is currently no vaccine to prevent you from contracting valley fever.  But if you develop valley fever infection, treatments for valley fever are available and usually effective. If you develop symptoms, contact your healthcare provider.

Often, treatment is not necessary, since symptoms may resolve on their own. Some doctors will prescribe fluconazole or a similar antifungal medication to prevent a severe infection. 

If you are in a high-risk group, get treatment as quickly as possible; if you develop a severe valley fever infection, you’ll need to be treated with antifungal medications as advanced valley fever can be fatal if not treated. In the most severe cases of valley fever, you may need respiratory supportive therapy or hospitalization.  In severe valley fever cases, the nervous system can experience long-term damage.  Those with weakened immune systems can develop chronic pneumonia.

If you think you have coccidioidomycosis (valley fever) ask your healthcare provider if you need treatment.

How can I learn more about valley fever?

You can get more information about valley fever from articles at University of Arizona,, Arcadia News, Mayo Clinic, or from the CDC.

If you live in an area with Coccidioides in the environment, contact your local or state health department for the most up-to-date information.

Ric Moxley 
Contributing Writer

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