The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Friday, June 08, 2007

I've got the fungus!

So I’ve decided to take a departure from my usual travel-related entries to report on something a little different: my invasive fungal infection!

Yes, it’s true. After writing about fungal infections and antifungal therapy for more than 11 years, I’ve actually contracted one. Oh, the searing irony. I have coccidioidomycosis, also known as “valley fever”. It’s an endemic fungal infection, meaning it only occurs in a certain area: the southwest. Arizona is the focus but it’s also found in parts of neighboring states. In fact, the name “valley fever” comes from its occurrence in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Here’s the culprit, a fungus called Coccidioides immitis:

Anyway, it’s very strange, after years of writing about fungal infections and their treatment, to be on the other side of one; so I thought I’d record my experience.

While it’s a common infection in Arizona, here in NY it’s something most doctors would never see; so getting a diagnosis can be a challenge. Here’s how mine happened…

About 2 weeks after I got home, I developed a dry cough (and thought nothing of it). Then about a week before my diagnosis, I began to feel sore in my joints—and again I thought nothing of it. But the soreness got worse every day. I went to a conference in Chicago, and by the end of my trip it was so severe I could barely walk after sitting or lying down. I was also very fatigued. And when I got home, I also noticed large red lumps on my legs and had a fever of 102!

Clearly something was wrong. I've never had a fever in my adult life. So the next morning I literally hobbled to my GP. I even packed a little bag because my condition was deteriorating so rapidly I thought I might end up in the hospital. Once there, about 10 doctors in the practice examined me. And they all scratched their heads (maybe there was a lice outbreak?). It was clearly an infection (apparently the bumps on my legs, called erythema nodosum, are an immunologic response) but no one knew what was causing it. The combination of symptoms didn’t match anything they’d ever seen. I knew I was in trouble when they started pulling out textbooks. They took a lung x-ray, which revealed suspicious nodules:

Check out the graceful curves of my clavicle. I think I might have the most beautiful clavicle in the world! But I digress...

Now here’s the fun part. They asked about my recent travel history, and I mentioned having been in the southwest. That didn’t spark anything in their minds, but it actually got me thinking…so I suggested coccidioidomycosis. After poo-pooing me, they looked it up in their textbooks and—lo and behold—I fit the description to a “T”! They all started to read about it, and I started to laugh: the idea of me having a fungal infection was just too funny, too surreal. Once or twice the physicians tried to comfort me because they thought I was crying, when in fact I was laughing.

The next day I visited a specialist who has actually treated patients with cocci, and he concurred with their (my?) diagnosis. We’re still waiting for the blood tests for the final word, but it seems pretty clear-cut. Clearly I had to have picked it up when I was in Arizona with Karen. You only get it by being there and inhaling the spores. Remember beautiful Antelope Canyon? Well the whole time Karen and I were in there it rained dust and sand and dirt on us. You can clearly see it in this photo:

So that might be where I got it. In fact, I zoomed in on the falling dust particles in that picture and guess what I found:

So now I’m on Sporanox (itraconazole) for the fungus and Celebrex and Tylenol for the joint pain and do seem to be getting better, slowly but surely. My ankles are swollen (my left foot looks like Shrek’s) but the rash and the pain are beginning to dissipate. I have headaches and fatigue and more recently developed conjunctivitis in my right eye (another common symptom), but again I seem to be getting a little better. So this is pretty much my life now:

To answer a few questions that many of you have asked me…

Is it contagious? Absolutely not. You can only get cocci by inhaling the spores yourself.

Can anyone get it? Anyone who lives in the endemic areas or travels through them, especially if you’re exposed to loose or recently upturned soil and/or high winds. Unlike many other fungal infections, you don’t have to be immunocompromised to get this one.

Are you gonna die? Only if LifeTime stops rerunning The Golden Girls. Cocci is rarely fatal, and then only when it infects major organs, particularly the brain.

How long until you get better? Hard to say. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes it takes months. Some people remain on therapy for years or the rest of their life. Happily I seem to be on the mend already, and I think I’ll be able to return to a regular life in another week or so. But I may have sore joints for a long time thereafter. That’s why they also call this disease “desert rheumatism”.

Where can I find more information? Click here for The Merck Manual Home Edition online. They have a good, brief overview of the disease. For more in-depth information, click here for the Valley Fever Center of Excellence. Located in Tucson (naturally), their Web site has a lot of good info, including an extensive Q&A.

Anyhoo, I’ll keep y’all updated. In the meantime, thanks for all the cookies, flowers, e-cards, and well wishes. They really help.

Because it turns out fungus is no fun.


  • Hello, quick question: did those red bumps on your legs itch? I mean, before you had the allergic reaction to the medication.

    (I have what I assumed was bronchitis, but now I've got red bumps on my legs. They're not too dismilar to yours in size and distribution, except that they're not quite so obvious... and oh my god do they itch.

    And I live in Tucson, Arizona.)

    By Blogger Jackie M., at 8:05 AM  

  • Hi, mi name is Julia. My father lives in Ukraine and looks like he has reumatism, cough and the red spots on his feet, his ankles are swolen from time to time and sometimes he can barely walk. Do u think it can possibly be the fungul infaction???
    Thank you.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:59 PM  

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