Another dust-storm season, another reminder about valley fever

Nathan J. Fish
The Republic |
The first dust storm of the season passes through downtown Phoenix on Thursday afternoon, July 5, 2018.

The first dust storm kicking off the monsoon season Thursday was a reminder about how more and more desert dirt will be blown through the air this summer.

But that's not the only thing being kicked up when a wall of dust rolls through.

Those dust storms can kick up dirt and soil that carry fungal spores called Coccidioides, or cocci. Found in Arizona desert soil, they can cause valley fever, a potentially serious lung infection.

"When the soil gets disturbed, whether by a storm, construction, or if you work frequently with the Arizona soil, you will get in contact with this fungal infection and you'll be at high risk of contracting it," said Dr. Thomas Ardiles, a pulmonologist at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix.

"It's like any infection — the more you're exposed to it, the higher the chance you'll get it," Ardiles said.

Experts believe the disease is underreported in Arizona, California's Central Valley and in other states where the disease-triggering fungal spores exist. It doesn't take a dust storm to stir the spores. A windy day, or dust stirred by farming or construction, or even traffic on any given day, is enough. Most days, there is some level of dust in the air in the Phoenix area.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, nearly two-thirds of all cases reported nationwide are in Arizona. In 2016 alone, there were 705 hospitalizations associated with a primary diagnosis of valley fever, the agency says on its website.

Valley fever is one of the most commonly reported infectious diseases in Arizona, and of those cases, 94 percent are in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, all desert areas.

Valley fever often goes misdiagnosed, Ardiles said. 

"Part of the problem is that it's not always reported right," Ardiles said. "It's a great imitator. They say about a third of pneumonia (cases) that are admitted to the hospital are valley fever."

MORE:Biggest Arizona monsoon threat early in the season? Dust storms

Individuals with valley fever can come down with flu-like symptoms such as a fever, cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and a rash. Most people recover on their own, but some require more intense medical care. In some cases, the infection can spread beyond the lungs into other parts of the body. 

And there's another twist.

"The truth is that most people, more than half the people — we say about 60 percent — will really either have no symptoms or will feel just like a cold, and it goes pretty much unnoticed," Ardiles said.

"Now the ones that get sick are typically really sick," Ardiles said. "Some people think it's a really bad cold, and if they have a healthy immune system it just goes away. But some people are more susceptible to not healing right away, and the infection can last weeks or months before they get diagnosed."

According to the Arizona DHS, in the last decade, the incidence of reported valley fever in Arizona has increased from about 75 per 100,000 people in 2007 to about 89 per 100,000 people in 2016, the most recent complete data on the DHS site. 

In 2016, 6,101 cases were reported in Arizona.

DHS said an infection in a person whose immune system is weak or compromised in some way could be deadly. But while there were 57 reported deaths from valley fever in 2016, the DHS says the infection is rarely lethal.

There is no vaccine or cure, and preventing infection is difficult, DHS said.

"To be honest, there's not much you can do. Just living here is a factor," Ardiles said. "It's really hard to avoid it. I would just say use common sense when there's significant dust in the air."