Cases of Valley fever can increase significantly during the summer, and Banner Health is working to raise public awareness about signs and symptoms of the potentially dangerous infection and the fungus that causes it.
Valley fever is an infection acquired by inhaling microscopic spores of the fungus Coccidioides. Risk of inhaling airborne spores increases when the desert soil dries out and the spores become airborne. Wind can carry the spores over significant distances, and disturbing the soil where the fungus lives can increase the number of spores in the air.
Reported cases of Valley fever in Arizona have been increasing since it became laboratory-reportable in 1997. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, cases have doubled since 2014, with 11,627 cases reported in 2021 and 4,550 cases so far this year. A recent study of data from Banner Urgent Care clinics showed new Valley fever diagnoses normally peak in August, but cases remain elevated throughout the summer.
“Anyone can get Valley fever, including children,” said Dr. John Galgiani, director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence, professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson and director of the Banner – University Medicine Valley Fever Program, which serves all of Arizona.
“Even though it’s a good idea to stay out of dust storms, infections can occur even when it is not very windy. Knowing that Valley fever occurs here in Arizona is the key,” Galgiani said. “It’s also crucial to seek medical treatment if you experience symptoms of the infection, which can include cough, fatigue, fever, muscle aches, chest pain and rash. If you think you might have Valley fever, ask your doctor for the simple blood test to check.”
Diagnosis requires specific testing, and without it, Valley fever may be indistinguishable from COVID-19 or bacterial pneumonia. Symptoms typically develop one to three weeks following infection, and it’s not uncommon for people to wait for a week or two before seeking medical care. Some people infected by the fungus don’t experience any symptoms.
A small number of infections are serious and can involve the skin, bones or brain. These complications are much more serious, and often require management with medications for years or the rest of one’s life. In some cases, surgery may be required to control the infection.
Fortunately, about two-thirds of infected people do not get sick enough to seek medical attention and fully recover on their own. In cases that do require medical care, symptoms can last for weeks, or even months, but eventually subside. The disease is not contagious, and those who have been infected become immune.
Since many Valley fever cases go undiagnosed, or diagnoses are delayed due to lack of awareness among medical providers, Banner Health and the Valley Fever Center for Excellence recently partnered to adopt new protocols to help physicians more quickly recognize, diagnose and treat patients with Valley fever infections. These protocols are also being made available more publicly to increase community awareness.
Seasonal residents and visitors to Arizona pose a unique challenge because they may become infected and leave Arizona before showing symptoms. Medical providers in areas of the country where Valley fever is not endemic are much less likely to be aware of the disease, and may attribute Valley fever symptoms to severe flu or other conditions. Misdiagnosis can lead to significant delays in treatment, potentially allowing the infection to spread and become more serious.