WELLNESS
03/28/2013 06:21 pm ET

Valley Fever Cases Have Increased Dramatically In The Southwest U.S.

Cases of Valley Fever, a fungal infection that causes respiratory symptoms, have increased by nearly 10 times over a 13-year time span in the Southwest, according to a new government report.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that cases of acute coccidioidomycosis have increased to 22,000 in 2011, from 2,265 in 1998.

Valley fever, which is caused by inhaling coccidioides fungi, can be mild and go away by itself, but it can also turn serious. The CDC reports that hospitalization is usually required for more than 40 percent of people who get it.

The states where the CDC saw the increase in Valley Fever cases are Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and California.

Specifically, there were 112,000 total cases, with the most appearing in Arizona (66 percent), followed by California (31 percent).

CDC researchers noted that the increase in Valley Fever cases may be due to weather changes, which could then affect coccidioides growth (the fungus lives in dry soil).

"Valley Fever is causing real health problems for many people living in the southwestern United States," Dr. Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., the director of the CDC, said in a statement. "Because fungus particles spread through the air, it's nearly impossible to completely avoid exposure to this fungus in these hardest-hit states. It's important that people be aware of Valley Fever if they live in or have travelled to the southwest United States."

The National Institutes of Health reports that occupations that may have higher risk of Valley Fever include construction, agriculture and military. Fortunately, it's not contagious. People who may have compromised immune systems may be at risk for more severe cases of the condition.

Symptoms of Valley Fever are flu-like, and include fever, cough, chills, headache, chest pain, fatigue and rash, according to the Mayo Clinic; because the symptoms are so similar to flu, a lab test is needed to confirm that it is indeed Valley Fever. Some people may never experience these symptoms, though. But for those who do, the sickness can last a long time -- sometimes even taking months -- and can even lead to chronic pneumonia.

Because most people have mild cases of Valley fever, rest is usually the only treatment that is needed, the Mayo Clinic reported. However, people at higher risk of infection may need anti-fungal medication.

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