Valley fever: Here's what experts say you should know

Symptoms of Valley fever are similar to the flu, including fever, cough and joint or muscle pain. (Photo via Getty Images)
Symptoms of Valley fever are similar to the flu, including fever, cough and joint or muscle pain. (Photo via Getty Images)

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A man in the United States who thought he had COVID-19 and was later diagnosed with a serious infection is warning others about his illness.

In an interview with Today, Jose Leon says his sickness remained a mystery for weeks and weakened his body to a point where he ended up in the emergency room on more than one occasion.

Eventually, he was diagnosed with Valley fever after the infection had spread throughout his lungs.

Since then, Leon says the illness has changed his life. While he's back home after months in the hospital, he still suffers from symptoms and can’t return to work until next year.

Even though the fungus which causes Valley fever is not found in Canada, an Alberta doctor advises Canadians should be aware of the disease, especially if they plan on travelling to areas where it’s present.

“We see a lot of cases in Calgary because we have lots of snowbirds, and so they go and they spend six months in Arizona and then they come back here with Cocci (Valley fever), so that’s very common,” Dr. Christopher Mody, a respirologist and department head of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, tells Yahoo Canada.

What is Valley fever?

Valley fever is a type of pneumonia that develops after a person breathes in a fungus (Coccidioides immitis) that grows in the soil. It gets into the air when dust blows around.

The fungus is typically found in desert areas in the United States, including California, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It’s also found in Mexico, as well as parts of Central and South America.

According to Alberta Health, the infection, also known as desert fever and coccidioidomycosis, is not contagious.

Before COVID-19, Mody says Valley fever was the most common type of pneumonia in certain areas of the United States. As COVID-19 settles down, he expects to see more cases of Valley fever crop up.

The respirologist notes that in Canada, Valley fever exclusively affects travellers. That’s why he stresses the importance of discussing any travel history with your doctor if you start experiencing any symptoms after coming home from a trip.

Dust storms in places such as Arizona can stir up the fungus that causes Valley fever and get it into the air. (Photo via Getty Images)
Dust storms in places such as Arizona can stir up the fungus that causes Valley fever and get it into the air. (Photo via Getty Images)

Symptoms of Valley fever are similar to COVID-19

Signs of Valley fever don’t show up immediately, but rather appear up to four weeks after exposure to the fungus.

Mody says it’s not surprising the man who was infected in the United States believed he had COVID-19 because the symptoms are similar to the flu, which include fever, cough, shortness of breath along with joint or muscle pain. An infected person may also get a red, spotty rash on their upper body or legs.

The Government of Canada also highlights that some people with severe cases of Valley fever may develop long-term lung problems. These issues can occur months or years after a person’s initial exposure to the Coccidioides immitis fungus.

The disease can also spread to other parts of the body for people who have a weak immune system, including pregnant women, people who have HIV, people with diabetes and people who take medicine that weakens their immune system.

As for risk factors, anyone can contract Valley fever.

“It's the people that are out backpacking, motorcycling ... it's the activity that predisposes it more than age or other potential risk factors,” Mody explains.

How is Valley fever treated?

Currently, there is no vaccine or medication to prevent Valley fever.

Most people will get better without treatment, but in more serious cases, doctors may prescribe anti-fungal medications.

Treatment will also vary if the infection spreads to other areas of the body.

“When the Cocci [Valley fever] gets into the brain or something like that, then it's a much more extensive regimen, and can be much more severe,” Mody says. “That's why the message, again, is when you go to your doctor and the doctor says, 'I think you've got pneumonia.' You need to mention where you’ve been travelling to.”

As travel ramps back up and people start planning trips for this fall and winter, Mody urges travellers to be cautious when going to certain places where Valley fever is common.

“If you’re going to Arizona, California, the desert of the Southwest, if the wind is blowing and it's dusty, stay indoors," he says. "The advice would be kind of similar to what you do in Alberta during a forest fire and there’s smoke. The answer is staying indoors and trying to keep the air as clean as you can."

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