Valley fever concerns high in wake of massive dust storm

Posted: Updated:

PHOENIX – More than 36 hours after a massive dust storm rolled over the Phoenix metro area, local hospitals are concerned about a potential spike in valley fever cases.

Valley fever, coccidioidomycosis, is a fungal infection that starts in the lungs. You get it by breathing in fungal spores and particles that are in dust.

"Of people who live in an endemic region [like Arizona], about 10 to 50 percent will have evidence of exposure to Coccidioides," according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While many people never exhibit any symptoms of valley fever, some might have cold- or flu-like symptoms. Those symptoms could show up anywhere from five to 21 days after exposure, and can include fever, chest pain, a cough the might produce blood, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, wheezing, a red and spotty rash, sensitivity to light and neck stiffness.

While valley fever symptoms can last quite some time, most cases are relatively mild and eventually go away on their own. Some people, however, can develop disseminated coccidioidomycosis. That’s a widespread, potentially deadly form of the disease in which the infection spreads to other parts of the body, including the brain and heart.

Those of Native American, African or Philippine descent are more likely to develop a serious infection, as are those who have a weakened immune system due to chronic illnesses like AIDS and diabetes and those who take medications that suppress the immune system.

Depending on the severity of the disease and your overall health, it can take six months to a year to recover. The good news is that it is not contagious.

A blood test, a culture and an X-ray are needed to properly diagnose valley fever. In severe and disseminated cases of valley fever, physicians will prescribe antifungal drugs to treat the infection.

Doctors say the key to protecting yourself from valley fever and other dust-related health risks is to stay inside during the dust storm. Once the storm has passed and the dust clears the risk of health problems drops significantly.

“The day after should be OK,” said Dr. Elbert Kuo, a doctor at St. Joseph’s Hospital. “Due to the irritation of the dust and wind blowing pollen, people with asthma, people with allergies, people with reactive-airway disease might notice a little increase in their symptoms … or might need an increase of dose of their inhalers. But most people shouldn’t have [suffer] any affect whatsoever.”

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has no plans to issue a health warning.

Dust was still hovering in the air Wednesday morning, creating a haze. While the air might have looked awful, ADEQ said all of its particulate monitors were elevated but still below federal standards for health. The sole exception was in Chandler.

"There is a lot of moisture in the atmosphere. This moisture wraps around suspended particles, enhancing the appearance of the particle and making it look worse than it actually is," ADEQ explained in an e-mail to the media.

Experts said the dust storm-induced could linger into Thursday because surface winds were expected to be light.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the number of valley fever cases in Arizona has been on the rise since it became laboratory-reportable in 1997. Fewer than 1,000 cases were reported that year. The number jumped to 4,768 cases in 2008.

The peak seasons for valley fever in Arizona are June through August and October through November.