If you live in Arizona, you’ve no doubt heard of valley fever, the respiratory illness caused by spores in the dry, dusty desert air. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself, especially if you enjoy being outdoors.
For most people, valley fever is an inconvenience, causing flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, cough or fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But for some, valley fever can be a serious, even life-threatening illness.
Two-thirds of the 150,000 cases reported annually in the United States occur in Arizona, 80 percent of which happen in the Sonoran Desert in and around Phoenix and Tucson, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Frequent exposure to wind and dust, which carries the valley fever spores, is how most people become sick, according to the Valley Fever Center for Excellence. Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors, or simply lives for many years in or near the desert, are most at risk, the group says.
That doesn’t mean you have to give up hiking, gardening or playing golf. The University of Arizona has developed a smartphone app that warns of dust storms so people can take shelter and/or get off the road. Also, when driving—even in normal weather conditions—the Arizona Victims of Valley Fever recommends that you turn your air conditioner to recirculate so you don’t pull in dusty air from outside.
Playing sports on concrete or grassy surfaces also reduces your risk. “The less you’re on desert soil, the better off you are,” says Sharon Filip, co-author of the book “The Valley Fever Epidemic” and director of the Valley Fever Survivor Support Group.
Desert activities that tend to kick up dust—such as hiking, biking and riding ATVs—put you at a greater risk, according to the Valley Fever Center for Excellence.
Dignity Health, a local health organization, provides educational events and information on its website. Each November, during Valley Fever Awareness Week, there are open houses, online chats and forums where the public can ask questions and get information.