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Your Health

Health Department Responds to Concerns About Valley Fever

The Santa Barbara Public Health Department has received numerous questions about valley fever (or cocci) following the recent Thomas Fire, mudslide, and dusty conditions due to drying mud.

Dr. Charity Dean, county health officer, said the risk of infection from valley fever is low, although possible.

“The health effect I’m most concerned about related to the dust is irritation to the lungs and eyes," she said. "The risk of acquiring cocci is low, though not zero, in Southern Santa Barbara County.

"People who are concerned about the dust should wear an N95 mask and take measures to protect their lungs in dusty conditions.”

Southern Santa Barbara County, where the Thomas Fire and mudslide occurred, is not an area where valley fever is highly endemic. From Dec. 4 to the present, there has been one confirmed case on the South Coast and 18 confirmed cases in the North County, the health department reports.

The fungus is highly endemic in San Luis Obispo, Kern and Tulare counties, the department said. The highest risk for infection is during the dry season between spring and fall.

Valley fever is caused by the fungus coccidioides, also called cocci, which is a dimorphic fungi, meaning it exists in two forms, the Health Department said.

It grows as a mold inches beneath desert soil. It also exists as a spore in the air, the department said.

In dry conditions, the soil can be blown into the air causing the mold beneath it to break into tiny spores. These spores, which are 3-5 microns in diameter, can be suspended in the air and inhaled into the lungs, the department said.

Many people who inhale coccidioides spores never develop symptoms. Of those who do develop symptoms, they can either manifest acutely as primary disease (7-21 days after inhaling spores) or later as reactivation disease (months or years after inhaling spores), the department said.

Of those who do develop symptoms 7-21 days after exposure, most are mild and resolve without treatment, the department said.

It is estimated that less than 50 percent of acute valley fever cases are diagnosed because symptoms are mild and medical evaluation is not sought.

The Health Department reports that severe cases of valley fever can be successfully treated with anti-fungal therapy. Recent or past infection with coccidioides spores can be determined by a simple blood test for the IgM or IgG antibody.

— Susan Klein-Rothschild for Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.

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