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The importance of understanding and recognizing valley fever

Valley Fever (FILE)
Posted at 5:55 PM, Jun 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-30 15:54:45-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Valley Fever, it’s a disease that you may not know about but it is endemic in Kern County and is most common when we have windy and dusty days.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, valley fever cases are most common in people who live in Arizona and California. In 2019 Arizona had more than 10,000 cases and California had over 9,000 cases. Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah had 350 cases and all other states had 290 cases.

This is why local health officials say it's important to be aware of valley fever because in some cases you may not know you have it.

According to the CDC, valley fever "also called coccidioidomycosis, is an infection caused by the fungus Coccidioides. The fungus is known to live in the soil in the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico and Central and South America."

The fungus was also recently found in south-central Washington. People can get Valley fever by breathing in the microscopic fungal spores from the air, although most people who breathe in the spores don’t get sick. Usually, people who get sick with Valley fever will get better on their own within weeks to months, but some people will need antifungal medication. Certain groups of people are at higher risk for becoming severely ill. It’s difficult to prevent exposure to Coccidioides in areas where it’s common in the environment, but people who are at higher risk for severe Valley fever should try to avoid breathing in large amounts of dust if they’re in these areas.

“Oftentimes we’re going to have valley fever and really have no symptoms at all the majority of us, but some of us will become quite sick and unfortunately in very rare circumstances can lead to death,” says Michelle Corson with Kern County Public Health.

The associate medical director with Kern Medical’s Valley Fever Institute Arash Heidari says it’s a fungus that grows in the soil here locally.

“The fungus lives in the soil and it usually lives in the area of what we call the Lower Sonoran Life Zone, which Bakersfield and Kern County is one part of it.”

As a result, windy days or dust storms can result in valley fever.

Corson says this fungus is most common this time of year.

“We actually are entering in the time of year where valley fever becomes more common. It's from June through November here in California, are really kind of seen as those peak months of acquiring valley fever.”

While valley fever is not contagious and you may not have any symptoms Corson says there are some indicators to keep in mind.

“Your gonna want to pay attention to things like fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, and body aches. You can even develop rashes. So everybody’s body is gonna really react differently if they are having a reaction. So you are going to want to seek medical attention if you have symptoms like this that persist.”

Many people who are exposed to the fungus Coccidioides never have symptoms.1 Other people may have symptoms that go away on their own after weeks to months. If your symptoms last for more than a week, contact your healthcare provider.

Symptoms of Valley fever include:

  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Night sweats
  • Muscle aches or joint pain
  • Rash on upper body or legs

In extremely rare cases, the fungal spores can enter the skin through a cut, wound, or splinter and cause a skin infection.

The fungus can also take time to actually enter a person’s lungs and Heidari says that’s why it's best to have knowledge of the disease.

“The average time from the acquisition of the infection to the diagnosis unfortunately is about a month nationwide and this is not acceptable. So it's up to us to be aware of this illness. We live in the area that is very common with this illness so we have to make sure that we are becoming our own advocate and let the providers and physicians to be tested for this fungal infection.”

According to the California Department of Public Health in 2019 more than 1,000 people were hospitalized with valley fever and 80 people died from the disease. Health officials have not released numbers for more recent years.