Valley Fever: Tricky to diagnose

The fungus that causes Valley Fever is common in our Arizona dust but it doesn't take a large dust story to expose you

Valley Fever: Tricky to diagnose

CREATED Jan 27, 2012

Reporter: Craig Smith

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - KGUN9 Chief Meteorologist Erin Christiansen is fighting a severe case of Valley Fever that will keep her away for another week or so.

Medical experts tell us the infection spread by dust in the air can be tricky to diagnose.

It probably wasn't obvious Erin was sick last Sunday night.

But she was pushing through what she thought might be bronchitis.  It took a few days before doctors decided she had a severe case of Valley Fever---a fungal infection spread by even small amounts of dust in the air.
Doctor Neil Ampel of the Southern Arizona VA Health System says Valley Fever often looks like other respiratory trouble.

"Forty percent of them present like a bronchitis or a pneumonia."
The rest may be cases so mild, you might never seek treatment and get well on your own.
There is a blood test for Valley Fever but it doesn't always detect the fungus, or confirming Valley Fever may require a new test perhaps two weeks after the first.

When Valley Fever is bad it can make you miserable for weeks and months, you may be really tired, with a fever, cough, aches, severe night sweats, maybe even a skin rash.

Doctor Ampel says, "About five percent of people who get infected have residual problems.  Those are two kinds.  One is where you have persistent problems in the lungs and those can be nodules, those can be cavities, occasionally those cavities can break into the space outside the lung and cause those lungs to collapse.  Those are serious problems."
Even more rare is when the fungus spreads outside the lungs.  That's a severe problem that can require long treatment with anti fungal drugs.

KGUN9 reporter Craig Smith asked Doctor Ampel: "Once you've had it do you then acquire immunity for a future case?"

Dr. Ampel: "That's a great question.   Absolutely and people get very confused.  I'm often called about this and said, well, for example, an individual in California would say, Dr. Ampel, I wanted to come back to Arizona but I've had Valley Fever and so what we tell all the patients is once you've had it you're not going to get a second case."

You don't have to be caught in a huge cloud of dust to be at risk for Valley Fever. It's hard to defend against catching it.  There's no vaccine and the fungus is very common through the Southwest U-S, especially in the areas between here and Maricopa County.
It's best to simply be aware of symptoms and if you think you have them raise the idea of Valley Fever with your doctor.

Besides his work on the staff of the Southern Arizona Veterans Administration Health System, Doctor Ampel is with the University of Arizona Valley Fever Center for Excellence.

The center will raise money for it's research and treatment with a "Walk For Valley Fever" event, Sunday March 18th.