Valley Fever: Dust in the Wind Dangers
This article was reviewed by Dr. Zeba Yamin, a family medicine physician with Dignity Health Medical Group – Bakersfield. Dr. Yamin is currently accepting new patients at her office located at 9500 Stockdale Hwy., Suite 201. Please visit DHMF.org/Bakersfield or call (661) 865-5495 for more information.
Valley fever goes by many names. Some people refer to the infection as cocci, desert rheumatism, California fever or San Joaquin fever. This condition is caused by a fungus that lives in soil throughout Kern County and other parts of the world. When dormant soil with Coccidioides fungus growing beneath it is upturned, microscopic spores are released into the air. Inhaling these spores is what causes valley fever and it is extremely rare to contract the infection any other way.
Valley fever usually causes chest pain, a fever and a dry hacking coughing, but there are many other symptoms associated with the fungal infection. The symptoms vary based on the severity of the condition.
Most cases of valley fever in Kern County are acute, meaning the symptoms are generally mild in comparison to other forms of the infection. Some people with acute valley fever mistake the infection for the flu or common cold, and recover without medical attention, by getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids. Signs of acute valley fever include:
- Chest pain
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches
- Joint pain
- Skin rash (often red, painful bumps on the shins)
Escalation of the infection from acute to chronic status depends on several factors, including how strong your immune system is, how healthy you are prior to infection, and how many spores you inhaled. If your body can’t fight off the initial fungal infection, or you don’t receive treatment, you could experience:
- Weight loss
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Blood in your sputum (mucus you cough up)
- Difficulty breathing
- Stiff neck
In rare cases, valley fever can spread from the lungs to other parts of the body. This severe version of the infection is called disseminated coccidioidomycosis and requires immediate medical attention. The most commonly affected body parts of disseminated coccidioidomycosis are skin, bones (including the skull or spine), brain, liver, heart and joints like the knees or ankles. Signs of this serious disease may include:
- Skin lesions
- Lesions in the skull, spine or other bones
- Painful, swollen joints
- Infection of the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis)
If you believe you’ve been exposed to valley fever and you start to experience symptoms, the best thing you can do is schedule a doctor’s visit for testing. While there is no cure for valley fever, the infection can be treated with anti-fungal medications. Usually people who have had valley fever once build antibodies and immunity to the infection, but there have been cases of reactivation or re-infection. The disease is not contagious from person to person.
Screening for valley fever requires specific blood testing in order to be accurately diagnosed. Because the infection presents much like the common flu, it’s crucial to give your doctor as much information as you can regarding your lifestyle prior to infection, and if your symptoms have worsened.
To prevent infection, Kern County residents should take precautions on windy days, when valley fever spores can be kicked up and travel. Avoid activities where a lot of dust is generated or dormant soil is turned up, when possible. If your job requires you to work with soil, there are measures you can take to protect yourself, like keeping the dirt wet to prevent airborne spores and using hard ground cover to minimize exposed soil.
The best thing you can do is educate yourself on valley fever — learn where the fungus grows and the symptoms of the infection. If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms and may have been exposed to valley fever fungus, see your doctor for a diagnosis right away.