Q&AZ: Can COVID-19 masks help prevent Valley fever?

Published: Wednesday, October 20, 2021 - 3:49pm
Updated: Thursday, October 21, 2021 - 10:33am
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Valley fever has sickened nearly 9,000 Arizonans this year. It’s more common in Arizona than in any other state. Since it’s a respiratory illness, one listener asked through KJZZ's Q&AZ reporting project, if the masks we wear to prevent COVID-19 might also prevent Valley fever.

Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is caused by a fungus found in the soil in our region. If you inhale fungal spores, it can cause a nasty cough and fever.

“If you get diagnosed with community-acquired pneumonia by a doctor in Phoenix, there’s about a 25% to 30% chance that it’s due to Valley fever,” said Dr. John Galgiani with the University of Arizona’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence.

You’d think people working in agriculture or construction might be at higher risk. But Galgiani said he treats as many office workers as people in outdoor jobs.

“The fungus really is only in a very small percentage of the acreage. So you can do a lot of dirt moving and dust generation and actually have no risk because you’re not digging where the fungus actually is," Galgiani said.

Since it’s hard to know where the fungal spores are, Galgiani said Valley fever is a really difficult illness to prevent. He said masks, like the ones that prevent COVID-19, could help, but they’d have to be the highest filtration material. 

“And you’d have to do it all the time, it’s not just when you’re working in the garden, for example," Galgiani said.

Galgiani said what’s more important is just to understand what Valley fever is. It often gets misdiagnosed, so being aware that it's a possibility for Arizona residents and visitors, and getting the right treatment if infected, is key to avoiding the most severe outcomes.

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