Aspergillosis is a group of illnesses caused by a certain type of mold. These illnesses usually affect the respiratory system. The mold that triggers the illnesses, aspergillus, occurs widely indoors and outdoors. Most strains of this mold are harmless. But a few can cause serious illnesses when their spores are inhaled by people with a weakened immune system, underlying lung disease or asthma.
In some people, the spores trigger an allergic reaction. Other people develop mild to serious lung infections. The most serious form of aspergillosis — invasive aspergillosis — occurs when the infection spreads to blood vessels and beyond.
Depending on the type of aspergillosis, treatment may involve observation, antifungal medications or, in rare cases, surgery.
The signs and symptoms of aspergillosis vary with the type of illness you develop:
Other types of aspergillosis
When to see a doctor
Aspergillus mold is virtually unavoidable. Outdoors, it's found in decaying leaves and compost and on plants, trees and grain crops. Inside, the spores — the reproductive parts of mold — thrive in air conditioning and heating ducts, insulation, and some food and spices. Aspergillus is so common in old buildings, even in older hospitals, that small epidemics have occurred among people with weakened immune systems when nearby buildings have been torn down.
Everyday exposure to aspergillus is rarely a problem for people with healthy immune systems. When mold spores are inhaled, immune system cells simply surround and destroy them. But people who have a weakened immune system from illness or immunosuppressant medications have fewer infection-fighting cells. This allows aspergillus to take hold, invading the lungs and, in the most serious cases, other parts of the body.
Aspergillosis is not contagious from person to person.
Your risk of developing aspergillosis depends on your overall health and the extent of your exposure to mold, but in general, these factors make you more vulnerable to infection:
Depending on the type of infection, aspergillosis can cause a variety of serious complications:
Preparing for your appointment
People who develop aspergillosis usually have an underlying condition, such as asthma or cystic fibrosis, or have a weakened immune system due to an illness or to immune-suppressing medications. If you have symptoms of aspergillosis and are already being treated for a medical condition, call the doctor who normally provides your care for that condition. In some cases, when you call to set up an appointment, your doctor may recommend urgent medical care.
If you have a weakened immune system and develop an unexplained fever, shortness of breath or a cough that brings up blood, seek immediate medical care.
If you have time to prepare before seeing your doctor, here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what you might expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Prepare a list of questions so that you can make the most of your time with your doctor. For aspergillosis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask additional questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Diagnosing an infection caused by aspergillus mold can be difficult. Aspergillus is common in the environment and is sometimes found in the saliva and sputum of healthy people. What's more, it's hard to distinguish aspergillus from other molds under the microscope, and symptoms of the infection are similar to those of conditions such as tuberculosis.
Your doctor is likely to use one or more of the following tests:
Treatments and drugs
Aspergillosis treatments vary with the type of disease. Possible treatments include:
It's nearly impossible to avoid aspergillus entirely, but if you've had a transplant or are undergoing chemotherapy, try to stay away from the most obvious sources of mold, such as construction sites, compost piles and stored grain. If you have a weakened immune system, your doctor may advise you to wear a face mask to avoid being exposed to infectious agents.
Last Updated: 2011-04-29
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