Valley Fever Rates Rising: What Is Coccidioides?

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Dust storms, like this one in TX, can stir up the fungus that causes Valley Fever. Photo by NOAA George E. Marsh Album

One Valley Fever Sufferer’s Story

A reader who lives in New Mexico shares her experience with Valley Fever here:

“In December of 2011, after driving through a terrible dust storm in the Panhandle to move to New Mexico, I developed a cough. I went to a clinic and they said it was bronchitis and gave me an antibiotic. In February of 2012 I felt like my chest was going to explode. I went to the ER and they said they thought it was pneumonia and gave me another antibiotic.

The pain continued in my chest, just below my ribs. I went to the ER three more times before a nurse did an ultrascan and blood tests and told my husband and I that I needed to see a doctor the next day; she thought I had cancer.

Went to two gastroenterologists, ran dozens of tests, found minor things wrong in all of them, but nothing made sense.

She sent me to a gynocologist for the cysts on my ovaries and one was malignant, they removed it, but my blood tests were still off. The oncologist tested my blood twice a week for months and could not figure out why I was jaundiced, didn’t seem to be getting enough oxygen, why I seemed so sick even though I eat healthy and exercise every day.

The doctor put me on another course of antibiotics thinking it was chronic bronchitis. The oncologist gave me acid reflux medication because he thought the cough might be stress related.

A year and a half later I was interviewing the New Mexico State Climatologist and I coughed.

He said the cough sounded familiar and begged me to be tested for Valley Fever. A few hours later I took the antibiotic and became so sick I thought my chest would explode.

I spent 12 hours in the ER and my husband told them to test me for Valley Fever. The doctor said he’d never heard of it. They tested me and all of my levels were high.

They also gave me a chest x-ray and it showed that I had reduced breathing capacity. My chest hurts all the time. I cough all day and all night. In the beginning, the symptoms seemed to come and go, but now they’re constant.

I feel like I have the flu, but I also psoriatic arthritis, so I am in a lot of pain in my joints. My chest hurts so bad that I can’t sleep at night.

The most frustrating part was knowing they were missing something, knowing deep inside that it wasn’t cancer, it was something else.  I’ll be okay, though. I’m a survivor.”

Valley Fever: CDC’s Perspective

Decoded Science asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a few questions about Valley Fever. Maria-Belen Moran at the CDC confirmed that Valley Fever is dramatically underdiagnosed, telling Decoded Science, “…there are likely many cases of valley fever that go undiagnosed.” She also suggests that medical staff educate themselves on the symptoms and tests for this infection, and be prepared with appropriate antifungal treatments.

Benjamin J. Park, MD, Mycotic Diseases Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Decoded Science that Valley Fever rates are increasing quickly. He says, “A recent study found that Valley Fever rates increased by an average of 13% per year in California and 16% per year in Arizona during 1998-2011. The reasons for the increase are unclear, but may be because of:

  • Higher numbers of people exposed to the fungus because of increased travel or relocation to areas where the fungus is common in the environment,
  • Changes in environmental factors such as temperature and rainfall, which can affect the growth and dispersal of the fungus, or
  • Changes in the way cases are being detected and reported.”

Valley Fever: Difficult to Diagnose

Valley fever can be difficult to diagnose, so often goes un-diagnosed. Educating medical professionals to recognize the signs and symptoms of valley fever will help provide more accurate estimates of those affected, and provide quicker and better care for the people with this hidden fungal infection.

Resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coccidioides (Valley Fever). (2013). Accessed August 4, 2013.

Mayo Clinic. Valley Fever. (2012). Accessed August 4, 2013.

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