Valley fever: Outbreak grips Arizona

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Valley fever: Outbreak grips Arizona

Valley fever — An outbreak in Arizona has prompted health officials to urge routine testing.

What happened? An outbreak of valley fever (coccidioidomycosis) in Arizona has prompted local health officials to urge lab testing for the lung infection in people who have symptoms of pneumonia.

From January 2006 through April 2006, more than 2,300 cases of valley fever were reported to the Arizona Department of Health Services — three times the five-year average for those months.

Valley fever is caused by Coccidioides immitis, a soil-borne fungus that thrives in the alkaline desert soils of southern Arizona, northern Mexico and California's San Joaquin Valley. The fungus produces spores that can be stirred into the air by factors such as farming, construction or wind. If you breathe the spores into your lungs, you may develop an infection.

Some people have acute valley fever and don't know it. Others develop mild signs and symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Rash

Rest and plenty of fluids are often enough to treat mild cases of acute valley fever. But careful monitoring — and sometimes antifungal medication — is important for more severe signs and symptoms.

In some cases, valley fever can lead to a serious infection in the lungs. If the fungus spreads beyond the lungs, it may cause skin sores, severe joint pain, an infection of the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and other serious complications. Sometimes the infection becomes a chronic problem, recurring as many as 20 years after the initial infection.

Older adults and people who have weakened immune systems are more likely to develop severe forms of valley fever than are otherwise healthy adults.

What does this mean to you? The symptoms of valley fever can easily be mistaken for other types of pneumonia. If you become ill, tell your doctor if you've recently traveled to Arizona or other areas where valley fever is common.

Last Updated: 05/18/2006
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