Chokechai Rongkavilit

Chokechai Rongkavilit, MD, is the medical director of infectious diseases at Valley Children’s Healthcare.

Every child gets sick every now and then. They get runny noses. They cough. They easily spread germs among each other.

When your child isn’t feeling well, it is only natural to worry. Their young immune systems are still developing and highly susceptible to infections. Most infections run their course without any big worries.

But what if your child has a lingering fever, cough or is in constant pain? And antibiotics do not seem to be working? Think twice — it might not be your ordinary infection.

Our region is a hotspot for an insidious fungus called coccidioides — cocci for short. This fungus lives in the soil and thrives in the Central Valley and the southwestern U.S. climate where the alternating drought and rain feed into it. Cocci produce spores that can become airborne. Anything that turns up the soil, including construction, ground digs, storms, an earthquake or agricultural activities create dust that could carry this invisible menace.

As winds blow, breathing in just one microscopic spore can lead to a human infection called valley fever.

Valley fever is common in children of all ages. The past couple of years, Valley Children’s Healthcare saw close to 500 cases each year. Because of the growing population in our region, we anticipate the number of pediatric cases to increase.

It is a tricky disease. A lot of children have the infection without even knowing they have it. For most who contract it, infections never produce symptoms. But one-third of those infected may develop symptoms of valley fever.

It starts with common symptoms like fever, cough, headaches and chest pain. Many think they just have the flu, bronchitis or pneumonia, so misdiagnosis happens often.

If symptoms linger beyond the typical two weeks, stay vigilant. Watch for other features such as night sweats, persistent headache, weight loss, joint pain, extreme fatigue, and especially a rash on the legs. These indicate a high possibility of valley fever. If detected early, the symptoms of valley fever are manageable. And the illness is not contagious from one person to another person.

If your suspicions run high, make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician right away. Your pediatrician can order blood tests to check for specific antibodies. A chest X-ray is also useful in aiding the diagnosis.

Treatment can range from three to six months with specific antifungal medications. The treatment could take longer for patients with complicated valley fever.

If a child contracts the disease, it is important for him or her to be monitored for one to two years, even if he or she is not on medications. Continual blood tests will be necessary every few months.

There is no permanent cure for valley fever. A vaccine is still in the early stages. The key is not to ignore the symptoms and to manage them immediately before they get worse. If untreated, valley fever can spread to lymph nodes, bones, skin, or the brain and spinal cord, causing meningitis. Treatment for meningitis is lifelong. If the patient’s immune system is already low, it could be deadly.

More children are infected with valley fever in the Central Valley than anywhere else in the state. To address this silent epidemic, Valley Children’s board-certified specialists see patients at our main campus in Madera, as well as during dedicated valley fever clinic days at our specialty care center in Bakersfield.

Our Central Valley region is booming. This means new construction and more soil disruption activities. You can’t avoid the potential cocci spore growth, but you can take precautions. If dusty winds are blowing hard, avoid being outside. Stay educated on the disease.Be aware of the symptoms. If your child’s flu symptoms last more than two weeks and you find unusual features arising, listen to your gut. Maybe it’s not the flu after all.

Chokechai Rongkavilit, M.D., is the medical director of infectious diseases at Valley Children’s Healthcare.