Pat Schumacher thought he probably had cancer. In the spring of 2021, he was feeling tired and had a constant, unproductive cough. He felt sick enough that he left the group he was RVing with to get a scan at the VA hospital in Las Vegas—and was told there was a golf-ball-sized lump on a lung.
“It was 100 degrees there so I headed home to Portland, OR, to get a biopsy, ready for bad news,” he said, Instead, the biopsy showed he had Valley fever.
None of his fellow travelers had ever heard of it—but cases of Valley fever have gone up 400 percent from 1998-2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What Pat had in his lungs was a fungus, which came from breathing in tiny specs of infected soil while hiking during his winter in Arizona.
It’s still a relatively rare disease—about 20,000 cases a year. “But those are the reported cases,” points out Pat. “How about the people who get it and don’t know?”
About 200 people die from Valley fever every year, reports the Center for Disease Control.
Valley fever is a fungus known as “coccidioidomycosis or ‘cocci,’” reports the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). “(It) can cause prolonged respiratory symptoms including cough, fever, chest pain, and fatigue or tiredness.” Joint pain and rashes are also symptoms.
Why the increase in cases? New research has spotlighted one possible explanation— increased dust storms due to climate change, says the American Lung Association. But paradoxically, Valley fever cases increase after heavy rains, just like the ones in the Southwest last winter. So, it is likely we will see a rapid increase in cases, especially this fall.
Here are nine things you need to know, especially if you or a loved one is headed to the Southwest this fall. (This information is from the CDPH website and other trusted websites like Mayo Clinic and the CDC.)
Nine things to know about Valley fever
- Mild cases of Valley fever usually resolve on their own. Some people never know they have it. It takes several weeks to start showing symptoms. In more severe cases, pneumonia can develop—and worse. Doctors treat the more severe infections with antifungal medication or even surgery.
- Ninety-seven percent of all cases come from exposure to soil in Arizona and California— although in recent years it has spread to Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and even Washington state.
- “Valley fever is an urgent health crisis because of climate change,” says UCLA Health clinical microbiologist Shaun Yang, PhD. New research by the University of California, Berkeley and CDPH shows that during drought, the fungus that causes Valley fever can become less active. However, when the rains return, the fungus can grow, leading to increases in infection. Cases of Valley fever in California have historically been lowest during years of drought and highest during years immediately after a drought.
- Valley fever shares many of the same symptoms with other respiratory diseases (including COVID-19). Valley fever symptoms can last a month or more, and laboratory tests are needed to know whether symptoms are caused by Valley fever or another illness. If a person tests negative for COVID-19 but continues to have respiratory symptoms that last more than a week, he should talk to a doctor and ask if the symptoms could be from Valley fever.
- Valley fever is not contagious.
- Animals can also get Valley fever.
- About 10 percent of people will develop serious or long-term problems in their lungs, according to ca.gov. In these rare cases, Valley fever can spread to other parts of the body and infect the brain, joints, bone, skin or other organs. This form of Valley fever can be very serious and even fatal.
- You can develop Valley fever any time of year, but you’re at higher risk of infection in early summer and late fall, when the soil is dry. Wind, construction work and even digging with a shovel can release dust and fungal spores into the air, where they can stay aloft for long periods of time.
- Obviously, most at risk are those who work—and play—outdoors. Other groups at higher risk of severe Valley fever, if they become infected, include people who are Black or Filipino, adults 60 years or older, pregnant women, and people with diabetes, cancer, or conditions that weaken the immune system.
Mitigating exposure to Valley fever
It can be difficult to prevent infection. Practical tips from the CDPH may help prevent Valley fever in areas with high rates:
- When it is windy outside and the air is dusty, stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed.
- Before digging, wet down soil and dirt to prevent stirring up dust into the air.
- Consider wearing a properly fitted N95 mask if you must be in dusty air outdoors in these areas.
Schumacher is relieved he had a lesser case of Valley fever and, like most people afflicted, he has made a full recovery. But it was obvious doctors didn’t know what they were dealing with—a blood test could have been a speedier and less painful diagnostic tool.
He gets an X-ray every year and the mass has shrunk. It hasn’t stopped him from wintering in Arizona. He’s been told he is now probably immune to the disease.
Still, he will never forget how worried he was after that first scan—and those few heart-rending seconds on the phone with the hospital before he knew his test results.