Valley fever fears rise after dust storm

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- Now that the dust has settled, it's stirring up new health concerns.

Hundreds of people gathering for a family-friendly fireworks show on July 3 in Ahwatukee may have exposed themselves to more than a little holiday fun when a massive dust storm rolled through.

After being caught out in the storm and breathing in all that dust, a lot of people are now worrying about valley fever.

"It's a fungus that's in the dirt, the soil, the air, so it's, in essence, around us all the time," said Dr. Rick Swearingen, the medical director at Dignity Health's Ahwatukee Urgent Care. "But certainly see clusterings of it this time of the year when we have the monsoons."

In an interview with 3TV, Swearingen said that after Thursday's storm and more in the forecast, he expects to see an uptick in patients seeking care in the coming weeks.

Valley fever, he said, takes about one to three weeks to become present.

"The main symptoms are fever, a dry cough, at times a rash," he said.

In essence, he said, most people have flu-like symptoms.

Last year, there were several thousand cases of the disease in Maricopa County alone.

However, Swearingen told 3TV it's nothing to panic over.

"The vast majority of people never have any symptoms; they never knew they had valley fever," he said.

There are certain groups, though, like the elderly or those with immune-system deficiencies that are more susceptible to severe symptoms and complications.

"There can be worse problems. Those are the ones we hear about in the news, where people had meningitis and bone infections -- all kinds of crazy things from valley fever -- but thankfully that's in the minority," he said.

For the most part, people who have lived in Arizona for any length of time have built up an immunity to the disease. Swearingen says people who have recently moved here are more likely to come down with it.

While most cases will clear up on their own, Swearingen said there are warning signs for when you should seek treatment.

"If they're having persistent cough, fever or rash," he said.