It’s possible you’ve never heard of Valley Fever before. Unless you’ve lived or traveled in the Southwestern United States, you wouldn’t have any reason to know it. However, this fungal infectious disease has been spreading due to ideal environmental conditions, and shouldn’t be mistaken for the common cold.
Although it’s relatively uncommon to develop symptoms, your likelihood of catching Valley Fever significantly increases when traveling to the Southwest. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe on your roadtrip.
Valley Fever Is On The Rise
The American Lung Association cites that cases of Valley Fever have increased 400% in the last few decades. Why is this happening? Dust storms due to climate change have increased in areas where it is endemic.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) details this change in a recent study. The NOAA explains that dust storms have more than doubled since 1988 due to warmer temperatures and drier conditions in the southwest United States.
Although we’ll know more with further research, the NOAA believes climate change is the strongest explanation for the rise in Valley Fever cases. According to CDC data, reported Valley fever cases in the U.S. increased by 32% between 2016 and 2018.
What Is Valley Fever?
Valley Fever is a fungal disease common in areas of the southwest United States. Also called coccidioidomycosis, the condition is caused by a fungus living in the soil. People can get sick when they breathe in these microscopic fungal spores.
Most people don’t get sick, and if they do, they heal on their own within a few weeks. But 30% of those infected end up needing medical care and antifungal medication to resolve the symptoms. It’s most common in people aged 60 or older, or those with weaker immune systems.
Roughly 200 people die of Valley Fever every year.
Fortunately, Valley Fever isn’t contagious. You can’t spread it from person to person or from person to animal. However, dogs can get Valley Fever. Like humans, most dogs will never get sick.
However, you might suspect your pet has gotten Valley Fever if you notice coughing, lack of energy, and weight loss. In some cases, the disease can cause complications that can be fatal. Call a veterinarian if you have any concerns.
➡ Valley Fever isn’t the only risk when RVing with your dogs. Make sure you’re fully prepared for any situation with these 7 Essential Dog Camping Gear Items You Can’t Forget.
What Are the Symptoms of Valley Fever?
Again, most people do not get sick and never have symptoms. However, you may need to visit a doctor if you develop a cough, fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, night sweats, muscle aches, joint pains, or a rash on your upper body or legs.
These symptoms may appear long after you’ve left an area where Valley Fever is prevalent. You might be back home in New York for two weeks before seeing any symptoms.
What Are the Risks of Valley Fever?
If you travel to the southwest United States, Mexico, or Central or South America, where it’s more common, you have a shallow risk of infection. Your risk increases if you travel to a very dusty area. Also, if you’ve had Valley Fever before, it’s improbable that you’ll get it again. Your body will fight off the disease, and your immune system will most likely protect you.
If you catch Valley Fever, there are risks of it causing more serious complications. It’s rare, but the fever can spread to organs, bones, and lymph nodes in those with very weak immune systems. Another rare occurrence is meningitis, which affects the spine and brain. Bad cases can last for years or decades.
Again, severe Valley Fever is very rare. Only five to ten percent of people who contract the disease will develop problems with their lungs. And an even smaller percentage of people will experience problems with their central nervous system, skin, or bones.
Who Can Catch Valley Fever?
Anyone can catch Valley Fever, but it’s most common in people over age 60. There are also groups of people with a higher risk. People with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, those with diabetes, and people of color or Filipino descent are considered more at-risk.
Also, people who work in dusty environments, such as construction workers and agricultural workers, have a higher chance of catching Valley Fever.
Where Is The Fungus Most Common?
As mentioned before, Valley Fever is common in the southwest United States, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, and even West Texas. It lives in the dust and soil of these areas. The state with the largest number of cases, however, is Arizona. Fortunately, this is also the state best equipped to handle Valley Fever, monitor reports, and raise awareness of the diease.
Researcher speculate that rainy periods followed by prolonged droughts create the environment for Valley Fever spores to spread. During the rain, the fungi grows. Once the drought comes, the fungus dries out and are carried away by the winds. Research has shown a correlation between increased Valley Fever and drier climates due to climate change.
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How to Avoid Getting Valley Fever on Your Road Trip
It’s very difficult to avoid breathing in the fungus when it is present and dusty. But there are a few prevention tips to keep yourself healthy on your road trip.
Avoid Areas with a Lot of Dust & Wind
Areas like construction sites and excavation sites create a lot of dust. Try to avoid these areas and others with a significant amount of dust, especially if you’re at risk. If you must be in these areas, wear an N95 respirator to help protect you.
Avoid going outdoors on windy days, and keep an eye on the weather conditions to reduce the chance of being caught in a dust storm.
If you encounter a dust storm, stay indoors with doors and windows closed. And even though you might stay indoors often to reduce your exposure, use quality air filtration in your home to further protect you and your loved ones.
Pro Tip: Make sure your RV AC filter is up to par when traveling to the Southwest. Learn How to Clean and Replace Your RV Air Conditioner Filter.
Clean Skin Injuries Well
Open wounds are exposed to the air and dust. Clean these skin injuries well so that you don’t develop an infection.
Avoid Activities That Include Close Contact with Dust and Dirt
At-risk individuals should avoid activities like yard work and gardening. Close contact with the ground can increase your chances of getting Valley Fever. Particularly disturbing ground that hasn’t been touched in a long time can kick up spores in wait.
What to Do If You Develop Symptoms of Valley Fever
If you develop symptoms lasting a week or longer, call your physician. You may need antifungal medication. Remember, Valley Fever is not contagious, so you don’t need to quarantine from anyone or your pets.
Are the Risks Worth It When Visiting the Southwest?
Should you cancel your trip to the Southwest? Absolutely not!
Go enjoy the great outdoors of Utah, New Mexico, California, or Arizona. But go with knowledge of Valley Fever and these preventative tips. Know how to protect yourself and what to look out for. Remember, although prevalent in this part of the country, Valley Fever is not contagious, and the likelihood of developing symptoms is slim.
So, pack your bags and enjoy the ancient history, cultures, and beautiful scenery of the Southwest!
The dry heat and desert lands of the Southwest pose their own set of risks, from dehydration to venomous insects. If your road trip includes stops in Arizona, be sure you know how to Avoid These Arizona Insects When Camping and Hiking.
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