Summer is the perfect time to indulge in your favorite outdoor activities. For some this means traveling, hiking and camping. Though clean outdoor air is good for your lungs, other things in the environment may put you at risk. Depending on a variety of factors, contaminated soil can carry diseases, some of which may affect your respiratory system. As you journey into the wilderness this season, here are some tips to help stay safe from lung infection. If you do experience any illness after spending time outdoors, be sure to give detailed accounts of where you were and what exposures you may have encountered for your health care provider to be alerted of the possibilities below.
Protecting Against Valley Fever
Coccidioidomycosis, commonly referred to as valley fever, is a respiratory disease caused by a fungus that lives in the soil. This fungus, Coccidioides, is found in the soil in the Pacific Northwest and southwestern United States, northern Mexico and parts of Central and South America. Each year, the CDC reports about 20,000 cases are reported in the United States, with about 5 to 10% of those infected experiencing serious or long-term lung problems. However, as temperatures rise due to climate change, experts project that this fungus will become more common in the eastern U.S. as well.
There is no vaccination available to prevent valley fever, so awareness and prevention is key. People and animals get valley fever by breathing in the fungal spores from dusty areas where soil is disturbed. If you are in an area where valley fever is common and begin to experience symptoms such as fatigue, cough, fever, shortness of breath and muscle aches, you should consult your healthcare provider. For many, valley fever symptoms will be mild and resolve on their own, but people with a compromised immune system may be at risk of more serious infection.
Safeguarding from Histoplasmosis
Another fungus, Histoplasma capsulatum, can cause illness when infected soil is disturbed and the spores are inhaled. This fungus grows as a result of a large amount of bird and bat droppings. Histoplasmosis is most common in central and eastern states and more specifically in areas surrounding the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. It has also been found in parts of Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia.
People with a healthy immune system may experience mild flu-like symptoms or pneumonia if they inhale the fungus. But for those with a compromised immune system, the fungus can turn into yeast and spread throughout the body, including the mouth, liver, central nervous system, skin and adrenal glands. Known as "disseminated histoplasmosis," this is extremely dangerous and, if left untreated, can be fatal.
The only sure way to prevent contracting histoplasmosis is to avoid jobs and activities where you may encounter the fungus. As reinfection can occur, this is especially important for those with weaker immune systems. Digging in soil or chopping wood where there are bird or bat droppings, cleaning chicken coops, exploring caves or cleaning, remodeling and tearing down old buildings are some examples of such activities.
Understanding NTM Dangers
Nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) are a group of bacteria naturally found in soil, water and dust worldwide. Since these bacteria are so common, most people are not affected by them. However, certain strains, like Mycobacterium avium complex, can cause infection in those with chronic conditions and compromised immune systems.
A NTM infection causes inflammation of the airways, which over time causes them to become damaged and scarred. As the disease progresses, the damaged airways lose their ability to clear mucus normally, which invites recurring respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia which could lead to a condition called bronchiectasis.
Look out for Mice Droppings!
Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) is a rare but potentially life-threatening viral illness. People who participate in outdoor activities can become exposed to rodent urine, saliva or droppings, which if inhaled can lead to hantavirus infection. If you suspect infection, you should contact your healthcare provider immediately as severe respiratory distress is common.
Talk with your healthcare provider if you experience new or worsening symptoms that concern you. There are warning signs of lung disease – such as shortness of breath, wheezing, cough and excess mucus – that can alert you to seek treatment before the disease progresses. And be sure to give a complete medical history, including places you have visited recently.
Blog last updated: August 25, 2023