Spotting the Signs

Valley Fever symptoms, risk factors and treatments

By Alison Stanton

The Valley of the Sun may be known for its sunny weather and bright blue skies, but there can also be a dark side to desert life: Valley Fever.

“When it comes to the number of Valley Fever cases, Maricopa County is ground zero,” says Dr. Craig Rundbaken, a pulmonologist at the Arizona Institute of Respiratory Medicine and Valley Fever Clinic in Sun City West.

While other states like California, Texas, Utah and Nevada do see cases of Valley Fever, Dr. Rundbaken says Arizona definitely gets the lion’s share.

“The most recent data estimates that there are 350,000 cases of Valley Fever in the United States every year, and two-thirds of those are in Arizona,” says the doctor.

Valley Fever 101

As Dr. Rundbaken notes, Valley Fever is a respiratory infection caused by inhaling desert fungal spores. These fungi are called Coccidioides immitis and Coccidioides posadasii; the latter strain was discovered in 2002.

People who have Valley Fever typically have a number of symptoms, many of which mimic the flu; these include fever, chills, sweats, headaches and coughing.

“About one-third of people with Valley Fever also have a rash, and they can also have joint pain, chest pain, and they can cough up blood,” Dr. Rundbaken says.

People who think they may have Valley Fever should start with an appointment with their primary care physician, Dr. Rundbaken says, adding that the doctor can order blood tests and X-rays to confirm the presence of the condition.

Risk factors

Not everyone who inhales the spores that cause Valley Fever will come down with it — Dr. Rundbaken says about 40 percent become ill.

Being over the age of 60 is a risk factor for getting the illness, as is being new to the Valley.

“People who have not lived here that long are what we call ‘immune naïve,’ but the longer you’ve been here, the more likely you are to have immunity to Valley Fever,” Dr. Rundbaken says.

Other risk factors include having a suppressed immune system — for example, from undergoing chemotherapy or having an organ transplant — occupational exposure, including construction and landscaping jobs, and hobbies like golfing, hiking and biking.

“Males are also at a higher risk, as are pregnant women,” Dr. Rundbaken says.

Anti-fungal is the gold standard for treatment

No matter which species of spores cause a person’s Valley Fever, Dr. Rundbaken says they are treated the same — with an anti-fungal medication.

“Fluconazole is most often the first-line medication because it is well-absorbed and reasonably priced.”

Want to learn more about Valley Fever? Join Dr. Rundbaken at an education session on the topic on Oct. 24. Call 623-207-1703 to register.

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