In 2014, Alex visited her doctor after struggling with severe chest pain, cough and shortness of breath. Her doctor found that she had a cavitary lesion and had tested positive for valley fever. Since most people who get valley fever have no or minimal symptoms and do not require treatment, her doctors did not prescribe any medication. They believed that surgery would do more harm than good and because Alex was young and previously healthy, her body would have no problem fighting off the illness. Unfortunately for Alex, that was not the case.

Once it was determined that a more aggressive treatment was needed, Alex was put on an antifungal regiment for the next few years. Though they saw some improvement, the valley fever persisted, eventually resulting in a cavity in Alex’s lung. At first, the cavity was small and so her doctors decided against surgery. However, by October 2021, the cavity had grown to result in a nearly completely collapsed lung.

“I had to stay in the hospital for 89 days and had a total of 10 operations, five thoracotomies and 13 chest tubes along with the loss of my right latissimus muscle,” Alex said. “I ultimately lost my entire right lung on January 25, 2022 due to the many complications of the valley fever destroying my lung tissue.”

“It was horrible,” Alex said. “It was so hard to be away from my baby [who was only 5 months old] during that time.”

What Is Valley Fever?

The disease that caused Alex to lose her right lung, coccidiodomycosis, or valley fever, is a fungal infection found in the lungs. However, in a small number of people, like Alex, it spreads outside of the lungs and affects other parts of the body. People get the disease when they inhale Coccidioides fungal spores that are common in the soil in the Southwest. The fungal spores are often picked up by wind and dust storms and can travel up to 75 miles away from their original location. Fortunately, valley fever is not contagious and can't be spread from person to person.

Valley fever's symptoms—cough, chest pain, shortness of breath and fever—make it hard to distinguish from other common lung diseases. It's often misdiagnosed and treated as bacterial pneumonia. But antibiotics that treat bacterial pneumonia do not work on this fungal infection, making it important to get an accurate diagnosis.

Who Is at Risk?

The fungus that causes valley fever grows in the soil in the Southwestern U.S., northern Mexico and parts of Central and South America. Those who live in or travel to Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Texas are most likely to contract the disease.

This is why you should consider checking with your doctor if you are traveling to or live in areas where valley fever is common. Always avoid being outdoors in a dust storm, as the dust can affect your breathing even if it does not cause valley fever.

Those at an increased risk of developing severe disease include older adults, pregnant people, people living with HIV or diabetes, solid organ transplant recipients and people taking immune-suppressing medication therapy.

Is Valley Fever on the Rise?

Cases of valley fever have gone up almost 60% from 2016-2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why the increase? Emerging research has spotlighted one possible explanation—climate change.

Climate change is driving increases in intense rains, which can lead to more fungal growth. It also drives droughts and dust storms, which can then cause more spores to become airborne. California has seen an 800% increase in cases in the past two decades. The San Joaquin Valley, after which the disease is named after, has seen a 115% increase in infected people from 2000 to 2018.

How Can Valley Fever Be Treated?

As with most medical conditions, it varies. Most individuals with coccidioidomycosis do not require specific treatment and recover on their own within a few weeks or months. Healthcare providers may prescribe antifungal medications for those with lingering or severe symptoms, like Alex experienced.

Sometimes health professionals might not immediately diagnosis patients with valley fever because its symptoms are so similar to other lung diseases. This is especially true for patients who traveled to the affected region and later consult with healthcare providers back home who are less familiar with the disease. Some people have symptoms that persist for months after resolution of the disease, while others may require prolonged treatment.

Fortunately, Alex is doing better today after the removal of her right lung. “I get out of breath easily,” she says, “but I am getting better and hoping to return to work part time soon. I try to have perspective and am thankful I am alive.” She wants to encourage people to learn about valley fever and advocate for their health. “It is so important to advocate for yourself and your healthcare. If something seems wrong, speak up,” she says.

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