Valley Fever is a type of fungal infection that occurs when a person breathes in the spores released from a fungus known as coccidioides organisms. Valley fever usually occurs due to 2 fungi species which are commonly found in the soil of specific regions. The spores from the organism can be stirred and released into the air by anything that disrupts the soil, such as farming, construction and wind. This fungal infection is not contagious and hence cannot transfer from one person to another.
Also known as Acute coccidioidomycosis, San Joaquin Valley Fever or Desert rheumatism, the mild cases of this fungal infectious fever often subside on its own within weeks to months but chronic conditions where the infection spreads to other parts of the body typically require medical intervention in the form of prescribed antifungal medications.
Valley fever usually occurs when a person inhales spores of specific fungi, mainly Coccidioides immitis or Coccidioides posadasii. These fungi live in the hot desert sands and soil found in parts of Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona, Texas and Washington. It's named after the San Joaquin Valley in California. The fungi can also often be found thriving well in northern Mexico and Central and South America.
Just like other fungi, the coccidioides species have a complex life cycle. In the soil, they grow as a mold with long filaments or branches (hyphae) that breaks apart and releases individual airborne spores (arthoconidia) when the soil is disturbed. These microscopic spores are then carried away by the wind and later when inhaled, it settles into the branching system of the lungs where they reproduce, continuing the disease cycle.
Certain causative factors that increase the risk of valley fever include:
Age: Older adults are more at risk of getting this infection than younger individuals.
Ethnicity: People of Filipino or African origin are more prone to developing serious fungal infections.
Pregnancy: Pregnant women, specifically the ones in their third trimester are vulnerable to more-serious infections and even new mothers are susceptible to valley fever.
Weakened Immune System: People having a weakened immune system due to chronic conditions like HIV/ AIDS, Crohn’s disease or taking medications like steroids, anti-rejection drugs after transplant surgery or undergoing chemotherapy are at high risk of getting this infection.
Health Condition: People suffering from auto-immune chronic conditions like diabetes may have a higher risk of severe lung infections due to valley fever.
Environmental Exposure: People who live in areas where the fungi are commonly found, especially those who spend a lot of time outdoors involved in work that involves the soil have a greater risk of this fungal infection.
The preliminary symptoms of the acute form of coccidioidomycosis is often mild, with few or no characteristic symptoms and they usually develop within one to three weeks after exposure. The symptoms range from minor to severe and tend to be similar to flu symptoms. These include:
- Shortness of breath
- Night sweats
- Joint aches and muscle soreness
- Skin rash, which are red, spotty and mainly appear on lower legs but sometimes on the chest, arms and back
Symptoms of Chronic coccidioidomycosis
- Low-grade fever
- Chest pain
- Weight loss
- Blood-tinged sputum (matter discharged during coughing)
- Nodules in the lungs
If the infection becomes severe within weeks and still not treated effectively, it can turn to Disseminated coccidioidomycosis characterized by symptoms like:
Symptoms of Disseminated coccidioidomycosis
- Nodules, ulcers and skin lesions
- Painful lesions in the skull, spine or other bones
- Painful, swollen joints, especially in the knees or ankles
- Ruptured lung nodules
- Severe pneumonia
Diagnosis And Treatment
On noticing any of the above-mentioned signs and symptoms, do consult a doctor at the earliest to avoid complications, The doctor usually does a thorough physical checkup, reviews the patients past medical history and conducts the following diagnostics:
- Sputum smear or culture to analyze the discharged sputum for the presence of coccidioides organisms.
- Blood tests for coccidioidal serology
- Imaging techniques like Chest X-ray, CT-scan, or MRI-scan
In most cases which are mild, the symptoms of valley fever subside on its own within a matter of weeks with adequate rest and intake of fluids, but in case of a severe or chronic form, the doctor usually prescribes anti-fungal medications for a period of 4-6 months to remedy the symptoms