The number of people diagnosed with the infection Valley fever is increasing. According to a CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) report released this week, individuals diagnosed with the infection called Valley fever or Coccidioidomycosis has increased 74% since 2014.
Valley Fever is an infection caused by the fungus Coccidioides spp., which is typically found in the soil of warm, arid regions of the southwestern US (Arizona, California). It is found in a lesser degree in Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas, but has even been found as far north as central Washington. The fungus is inhaled and goes to the lungs, where it can cause a respiratory illness, but sometimes can also lead to disease throughout the body.
The CDC says on the Valley fever page: "People can get Valley fever by breathing in the microscopic fungal spores from the air, although most people who breathe in the spores don’t get sick. Usually, people who get sick with Valley fever will get better on their own within weeks to months, but some people will need antifungal medication. Certain groups of people are at higher risk for becoming severely ill. It’s difficult to prevent exposure to Coccidioides in areas where it’s common in the environment, but people who are at higher risk for severe Valley fever should try to avoid breathing in large amounts of dust if they’re in these areas."
What are the symptoms? Many people infected don't have any symptoms, while others (about 40%) may have flu-like symptoms lasting weeks to months, which may go away on their own. Valley fever can include symptoms such as: fatigue, cough, fever, shortness of breath, headache, night sweats, muscle aches or joint pain, and perhaps a rash on the upper body or legs. There is usually a 1 to 3 week incubation period. Unfortunately it may look like pneumonia, but typical pneumonia treatment with antibiotics does not help.
Much is still unknown in how to treat the illness, including whether antifungal medications lessen symptom duration or intensity in patients with uncomplicated Valley fever. [Antifungal medications are used to treat complicated cases.] About 5 to 10% of patients develop life-threatening severe lung (pulmonary) disease and in about 1% of people the infection spreads from the lungs to other parts of the body (e.g. brain and spinal cord, skin, or bones and joints). Some people may need lifelong treatment. While anyone can get Valley fever, the CDC says some risk factors include: immunosuppression (e.g. have had an organ transplant, have HIV, are on corticosteroids), being pregnant, having diabetes, people who are black or Filipino. The CDC lists some tips in preventing getting this fungus.