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Valley Fever

Many Arizonans Are Afflicted with Valley Fever

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dust-0711.JPG

A dust storm engulfs Phoenix homes

© Judy Hedding

It is common for people relocating to the Valley of the Sun to be concerned about Valley Fever. While Valley Fever can affect some people, it is important to remember that it affects few people very seriously, and many people never even know that they have it.

Still, it is not to be considered lightly. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the number of reported Valley Fever cases in Arizona hit a record high in 2006, with 5,535 cases. The number of reported cases in 2008 was 4,768. In 2011 there were about 6,000 confirmed cases of Valley Fever in Maricopa County (source). There were 12, 920 reports cases in Arizona in 2012 (down from 16,472 reported in 2011). (source).

What You Need To Know

What is Valley Fever?
Valley Fever is a lung infection. A fungus becomes airborne when dust around construction areas and agricultural areas is transported by the wind. When spores are inhaled, Valley Fever can result. The medical name for Valley Fever is coccidioidomycosis.

Where is Valley Fever found?
In the U.S. it is prevalent in the Southwest where temperatures are high and the soils are dry. Here is a map of the areas where Valley Fever is endemic.

How long does it take to develop symptoms?
It normally takes between one and four weeks.

Does everyone in Arizona get it?
It is estimated that about one third of the people in the lower desert areas of Arizona have had Valley Fever at some point. Your chances of getting Valley Fever are about 1 out of 33, but the longer you live in the Desert Southwest the higher your chances of infection. There are about 100,000 new cases of Valley Fever each year. You don't have to live here to get it--people visiting or traveling through the area have been infected, too.

Are some people at higher risk of getting it?
Valley Fever doesn't seem to play favorites, with all kinds of people at equal risk. Once infected, however, certain groups seem to have more instances of it spreading to other parts of their bodies; as far as gender is concerned, men are more likely than women, and African Americans and Filipinos are more likely when considering race. People with problem immune systems are also at risk.

Construction workers, farm workers or others who spend time working in dirt and dust are most likely to get Valley Fever. You are also at higher risk if you are caught in dust storms, or if your recreation, such as biking or 4-wheeling, takes you to dusty areas. One thing you can do to minimize your risk of getting Valley Fever is to wear a mask if you have to be out in blowing dust.

What are the symptoms?
About two thirds of the people who are infected never notice any symptoms, or experience mild symptoms and never even get treatment. Those who have sought treatment showed symptoms including fatigue, cough, chest pain, fever, rash, headache and joint aches. Sometimes people develop red bumps on their skin.

In about 5% of the cases, nodules develop on the lungs which might look like lung cancer in a chest x-ray. A biopsy or surgery may be necessary to determine if the nodule is a result of Valley Fever. Another 5% of people develop what is referred to as a lung cavity. This is most common with older people, and more than half of the cavities disappear after a while without treatment. If the lung cavity ruptures, however, there may be chest pain and difficulty breathing.

Is there a cure for Valley Fever?
There is no vaccine at this time. Most people are able to fight off Valley Fever on their own without treatment. While it used to be thought that most people don't get Valley Fever more than once, the current statistics indicate that relapses are possible and would need to be treated again. For those that seek treatment, antifungal drugs (not antibiotics) are used. Although these treatments are often helpful, the disease may persist and years of treatment may be required. If a lung cavity ruptures as mentioned above, surgery may be necessary.

Can my dog get Valley Fever?
Yes, dogs can get it and might need long term medication. Horses, cattle sheep and other animals can also get Valley Fever. Get more information specifically about dogs and Valley Fever.

Is it contagious?
No. You cannot get it from another person or from an animal.

Can I prevent it?
We live in the desert, and dust is everywhere. Try to avoid especially dusty areas, like new construction areas or open desert, especially during a haboob or dust storm. If it is windy outside, try to stay indoors.

Do people die from Valley Fever?
Less than 1% of the people who get Valley Fever die from it.

Are there local experts that I can consult?
Pulmonary specialists and many local family physicians and hospitals are very familiar with Valley Fever. Physicians in other parts of the country seldom see cases of Valley Fever and, therefore, might not recognize it. You should make sure your doctor knows that you have been to the Southwest and emphasize that you want to be tested for Valley Fever. If you need a medical referral in Arizona, you can get a referral to a doctor from the Valley Fever Center for Excellence.

My Sources, and More About Valley Fever

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