Valley fever is the initial form of coccidioidomycosis infection. This initial, acute illness can develop into a more serious disease, including chronic and disseminated coccidioidomycosis.
Acute coccidioidomycosis (valley fever)
The initial, or acute, form of coccidioidomycosis is often mild, with few or no symptoms. Signs and symptoms occur one to three weeks after exposure. They tend to be similar to flu symptoms. Symptoms can range from minor to severe, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Night sweats
- Joint aches and muscle soreness
- Red, spotty rash, mainly on lower legs but sometimes on the chest, arms and back
If you don't become ill or have symptoms from valley fever, you may only find out you've been infected later. You may find out when you have a positive skin or blood test or when small areas of residual infection in the lungs (nodules) show up on a routine chest X-ray. The nodules typically don't cause problems, but they can look like cancer on X-rays.
If you develop symptoms, especially severe ones, the course of the disease is highly variable. It can take months to fully recover. Fatigue and joint aches can last even longer. The disease's severity depends on several factors, including your overall health and the number of fungus spores you inhale.
If the initial coccidioidomycosis infection doesn't completely resolve, it may progress to a chronic form of pneumonia. This complication is most common in people with weakened immune systems.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Low-grade fever
- Weight loss
- Chest pain
- Blood-tinged sputum (matter discharged during coughing)
- Nodules in the lungs
The most serious form of the disease, disseminated coccidioidomycosis, is uncommon. It occurs when the infection spreads (disseminates) beyond the lungs to other parts of the body. Most often these parts include the skin, bones, liver, brain, heart, and the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord (meninges).
Signs and symptoms of disseminated disease depend on the body parts affected and may include:
- Nodules, ulcers and skin lesions that are more serious than the rash that sometimes occurs with other forms of the disease
- Painful lesions in the skull, spine or other bones
- Painful, swollen joints, especially in the knees or ankles
- Meningitis — an infection of the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord
When to see a doctor
Seek medical care if you are over 60, have a weakened immune system, are pregnant, or are of Filipino or African heritage, and you develop the signs and symptoms of valley fever, especially if you:
- Live in or have recently traveled to an area where this disease is common
- Have symptoms that aren't improving
Be sure to tell your doctor if you've traveled to a place where valley fever is common and you have symptoms.