Coccidioidomycosis, commonly known as Valley Fever, is caused by dimorphic soil-dwelling fungi of the genus Coccidioides. Genetic analysis has demonstrated the existence of two species, C. immitis and C. posadasii. These species are indistinguishable with regard to the clinical disease they cause and their appearance on routine laboratory media. Thus, the organisms will be referred to simply as Coccidioides for the remainder of this chapter.
Coccidioidomycosis is confined to the Western Hemisphere between the latitudes of 40°N and 40°S. In the United States, areas of high endemicity include the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley of California and the south-central region of Arizona. However, infection may be acquired in other areas of the southwestern United States, including the southern coastal counties in California, southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, southern New Mexico, and western Texas, including the Rio Grande Valley. Outside the United States, coccidioidomycosis is endemic to northern Mexico as well as to localized regions of Central America. In South America, there are endemic foci in Colombia, Venezuela, northeastern Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, and north-central Argentina.
The risk of infection is increased by direct exposure to soil harboring Coccidioides. Because of difficulty in isolating Coccidioides from the soil, the precise characteristics of potentially infectious soil are not known. Several outbreaks of coccidioidomycosis have been associated with soil from archaeologic excavations of Amerindian sites both within and outside of the recognized endemic region. These cases often involved alluvial soils in regions of relative aridity with moderate temperature ranges. Coccidioides was isolated at depths of 2–20 cm below the surface.
In endemic areas, many cases of Coccidioides infection occur without obvious soil or dust exposure. Climatic factors appear to increase the infection rate in these regions. In particular, periods of aridity following rainy seasons have been associated with marked increases in the number of symptomatic cases. The number of cases of symptomatic coccidioidomycosis has increased dramatically in south-central Arizona, where most of the state's population resides. The factors causing this increase have not been fully elucidated; however, an influx of older individuals without prior coccidioidal infection into the region appears to be involved. Other variables, such as climate change, construction activity, and increased awareness and reporting, may also be factors. A similar increase in the incidence of symptomatic cases has recently been observed in the southern San Joaquin Valley of California.
Pathogenesis, Pathology, and Immune Response
On agar media and in the soil, Coccidioides organisms exist as filamentous molds. Within this mycelial structure, individual filaments (hyphae) elongate and branch, some growing upward. Alternating cells within the hyphae degenerate, leaving barrel-shaped viable elements called arthroconidia. Measuring ∼2 by 5 μm, arthroconidia may become airborne for extended periods. Their small size allows them to evade initial mechanical mucosal defenses and reach deep into the bronchial tree, where infection is initiated in the nonimmune host.
Once in a susceptible host, the arthroconidia enlarge, become rounded, and develop internal septations. The resulting structures, called spherules (Fig. 200-1), may attain sizes of 200 μm and are unique to Coccidioides. The septations encompass uninuclear elements called endospores. Spherules may rupture and release packets of endospores that can themselves develop into spherules, thus propagating infection locally. If returned to artificial media or the soil, the fungus reverts to its mycelial stage.
Life cycle of Coccidioides. (From TN Kirkland, J Fierer: Emerg Infect Dis 2:192, 1996.)
Clinical observations and data from studies of animals strongly support the critical role of a robust cellular immune response in the host's control of coccidioidomycosis. Necrotizing granulomas containing spherules are typically identified in patients with resolved pulmonary infection. In disseminated disease, granulomas are generally poorly formed or do not develop at all, and a polymorphonuclear leukocyte response occurs frequently. In patients who are asymptomatic or in whom the initial pulmonary infection resolves, delayed-type hypersensitivity to coccidioidal antigens is routinely documented.
Clinical and Laboratory Manifestations
Coccidioidomycosis is protean in its manifestations. Among infected individuals, 60% are completely asymptomatic, and the remaining 40% have symptoms that are related principally to pulmonary infection, including fever, cough, and pleuritic chest pain. The risk of symptomatic illness increases with age. Coccidioidomycosis is commonly misdiagnosed as community-acquired bacterial pneumonia.
There are several cutaneous manifestations of primary pulmonary coccidioidomycosis. Toxic erythema consisting of a maculopapular rash has been noted in some cases. Erythema nodosum (see Fig. e7-40)—typically over the lower extremities—or erythema multiforme (see Fig. e7-25)—usually in a necklace distribution—may occur; these manifestations are seen particularly often in women. Arthralgias and arthritis may develop. The diagnosis of primary pulmonary coccidioidomycosis is suggested by a history of night sweats or profound fatigue as well as by peripheral-blood eosinophilia and hilar or mediastinal lymphadenopathy on chest radiography. While pleuritic chest pain is common, pleural effusions occur in fewer than 10% of cases. Such effusions are invariably associated with a pulmonary infiltrate on the same side. The cellular content of these effusions is mononuclear in nature; Coccidioides is rarely grown from effusions.
In most patients, primary pulmonary coccidioidomycosis usually resolves without sequelae in several weeks. However, a variety of pneumonic complications may ensue. Pulmonary nodules are residua of primary pneumonia. Generally single, frequently located in the upper lobes, and ≤4 cm in diameter, nodules are often discovered on a routine chest radiograph in an asymptomatic patient. Calcification is uncommon. Coccidioidal pulmonary nodules can be difficult to distinguish radiographically from pulmonary malignancies. Like malignancies, coccidioidal nodules often enhance on positron emission tomography. However, routine CT often demonstrates multiple nodules in coccidioidomycosis. Biopsy is often required to distinguish between these two conditions.