Valley Fever Rates Rising: What Is Coccidioides?

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Valley Fever is caused by a fungus called Coccidioidomycosis. Image by: Nephron

Valley Fever is caused by a fungus called Coccidioidomycosis. Image by: Nephron

Is ‘Valley Fever’ a hidden epidemic in the Southwestern United States?

Valley Fever is a fungal infection that is caused by the fungus, Coccidioides. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States in 2010 there were over 16,000 reported cases, mainly in California and Arizona.

How can you contract Valley Fever, and what are the symptoms and treatment options for this relatively unknown condition?

Let’s talk to the CDC and a woman who lives in New Mexico who has contracted this fungal infection to learn more.

What is Coccidioides?

Coccidioides is a fungus that lives in the soil of areas that receive little rainfall and have dry conditions.

You can contract Valley Fever by breathing in the fungus when the dirt gets stirred up from farming, dust storms, or construction. Coccidioides is native and common to the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central and South America.

According to the CDC, 30 to 60 percent of the people living in these areas are exposed to Valley Fever at least once in their life; however, not all people who are exposed develop symptoms.

What is Valley Fever?

There are three forms of Valley Fever, acute, chronic, and disseminated. Acute Valley Fever is the initial infection and symptoms are generally mild and include fever, cough, headache, red-spotty rash on the upper trunk or on the arms and legs, muscle aches, and joint pain in the knees and ankles, and chest pain.

For some people, like those with weakened immune systems, those who are pregnant (especially in their third trimester), those who are African American or of Filipino decent are more likely to develop an advanced case called Chronic Valley Fever.

Chronic Valley Fever can develop if the acute form does not resolve itself; these symptoms are more severe and include: low-grade fever, weight loss, cough, chest pain, sputum tinged with blood, and nodules in the lungs.

When Chronic Valley Fever spreads beyond the lungs to other parts of the body such as the brain, skin, bones, liver, and heart it is now known as Disseminated Valley Fever or Disseminated Coccidioides. 

People who have this form have symptoms relating to where the infection has spread, which may include nodules, skin lesions, and ulcers.

Lesions can occur in the skull, spine, and other bones. You can also find yourself with painful or swollen joints, and meningitis. Meningitis is a life-threatening infection of the membranes and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord.

Valley Fever Treatment

Most people with Acute Valley Fever just need rest and fluids, even with severe symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, doctors should monitor patients with Valley Fever very carefully. For those with chronic or disseminated cases, doctors provide antifungal medications  (fluconazole and itraconazole). These medications, however, come with serious side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In some of the serious cases, patients maybe treated with an intravenous antifungal medication, such as amphotericin B. Although these medications may help control the fungus, it may not destroy it, and relapses may occur.

Click to Read Page Two: Valley Fever Sufferer’s Story, CDC’s Perspective

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