Dirty fungus threatens Arizonan's health

Posted: Updated:

YUMA, Ariz. -- Desert dwellers are at high risk of becoming infected with a fungus which thrives in the hot and arid southwest.

The fungus Coccidioidomycosis causes valley fever.

According to the Department of Health Services, valley fever represents 59 percent of the total infectious diseases reported in Arizona this year.

The fungus is found in soil and lives just inches to a few feet beneath the surface, which means it can be easily stirred into the air by things like construction and even just wind.

University of Arizona Valley Fever specialist Dr. John Galgiani said about 100,000 Valley Fever infections occur in Arizona.

Galgiani said about two thirds of people that get infected have either no illness or an illness so mild that they don't bother to go to a doctor.

The other third have an illness that is typically described as a pneumonia.

Symptoms of Valley fever include fever, cough, chest pain that can range from mild constriction to intense pressure, chills, night sweats, headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, joint aches and a red, spotty rash. That rash is made up of painful red bumps and is usually on the lower legs, although it can show up on the chest, arms and back.

Chest X-rays, even those taken after the infection clears up, can show nodules on the lungs. Those nodules generally do not cause any problems, but they can look like tumors.

While valley fever often clears up without treatment, recovery can be slow for some. For older adults and those with weakened immune systems, the risk of developing severe disease can be high.

In mild cases, bedrest and treatment for the flu-like symptoms can be all that's needed.

In severe cases, doctors might prescribe antifungal medications to treat the underlying infection.

If the initial infection does not completely resolve, the disease can turn into a chronic form of pneumonia with symptoms that are similar to those of tuberculosis. Patients with the chronic form of the disease tend to go through alternating times of bad symptoms and apparent recovery.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.