When Dawn got sick four years ago, she started doing her own research to find out what might be causing her symptoms. Her suspicions turned out to be correct, but it took a long time before doctors accurately diagnosed and treated her illness.
Dawn’s illness started with a terrible cough. Soon, she couldn’t sleep because she often coughed up blood at night. “I got very sick. I started to lose my voice and was coughing a lot. I went to an [ear, nose, and throat] specialist, and they told me it was laryngitis,” said Dawn.
Dawn suspected she had something else—a fungal disease called Valley fever (coccidioidomycosis). People can get Valley fever by breathing in small fungal spores from the air in some areas. Dawn lives in Arizona, where many of the cases in the United States occur. “Being originally from the Midwest, I didn’t know [about Valley fever]. I hadn’t heard of Valley fever until I started doing research,” she said.
She went to another specialist and asked for a Valley fever test, but the physician didn’t order one. For the next three years, Dawn’s cough and hoarseness continued. One day, she took a turn for the worse. Struggling to breathe, she went to an urgent care clinic, where she got a chest x-ray. Looking at the results, the doctors thought she might have tuberculosis.
They sent Dawn to the emergency room, where the staff put her in a special room that prevents the spread of tuberculosis. But the infectious disease doctors who saw Dawn doubted she had tuberculosis. Instead, they suspected Valley fever. A scan of Dawn’s lungs showed a cavity—a hollow space where lung tissue should be—that was over three inches wide and filled with fluid. Doctors drained the fluid, which tested positive for the fungus that causes Valley fever. Judging by the large size of the cavity, doctors believed she’d had Valley fever for a long time.
For many people, the symptoms of Valley fever go away without treatment, but some people need antifungal medication. Dawn took antifungal medication for a year and experienced strong side effects from it, including fatigue, back pain, and hair loss. Her doctor debated taking Dawn off the medication, but was concerned the effects of the disease would get worse without it, and decided to continue her treatment.
Before she got sick, Dawn was active and enjoyed exercising, hiking, and making her own fruit and vegetable juices. After many months of feeling tired and weak from Valley fever and the antifungal medication, Dawn is finally able to return to the gym. But she still hasn’t fully recovered. “Valley fever changes your life. Now, I can’t hike very much, and there are days when I get up and take a shower and have to lie back down again because I’m just thoroughly exhausted.” Severe tiredness (fatigue) is common among people who get Valley fever, even those without the type of problems that Dawn developed. Nearly 75% of people with Valley fever report missing work or school for an average of 2 weeks.
Like many people who get Valley fever, Dawn had symptoms for a long time before she got an accurate diagnosis. “I wish that the Valley fever test was included automatically—that if you came in [to see a healthcare provider] with a cough or were tired or had those types of symptoms, they would test you for [Valley fever],”she said. Valley fever is one of the most common causes of lung infections in places like Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, and Bakersfield, California. It is also present in many other parts of these states and the southwestern United States, with illnesses seen as far north as Washington State.
Dawn continues to recover and wants to prevent others from going through what she did. “You really have to be your own advocate when it comes to your health,” she said. If you think you might have Valley fever, talk with a healthcare provider.