Lung disease fungus grows here

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Lung disease fungus grows here

With more than 400 species of birds and 13 species of bats, it is no surprise that Illinois is home to a somewhat rare but serious lung disease.

Histoplasmosis is an infection caused by a fungus called Histoplasma. The fungus lives mainly in soil that contains large amounts of bird or bat droppings. It is mostly found in the central and eastern states, especially in areas around the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys.

The fungus thrives in damp soil that is rich in organic material, so farmers and landscapers are at a higher risk of contracting the disease. It is particularly common in chicken and pigeon coops, old barns, caves, and parks.

People can get histoplasmosis from breathing fungal spores in the air. Most people are unaffected by the spores, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, others may have symptoms that include fever, cough, fatigue, chest pain, and body aches. It can also affect the eyes. The infection is not contagious, but can become severe for those who have weakened immune systems.

The CDC estimates as much as 90 percent of people who live in areas around the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys have been exposed to the fungus at some point during their lifetime. One study reported the incidence of histoplasmosis in American adults (age 65 years and older) to be 3.4 cases per 100,000 population. Rates were highest in the Midwest, with an estimated 6.1 cases per 100,000 population.

The most recent data shows Illinois’ cases to be primarily concentrated in the central portion of the state. Other neighboring states to report incidences included Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Histoplasmosis starts as a lung infection and can later move to the eyes through the blood stream. Once in the eye it can cause a serious disease called presumed ocular histoplasmosis syndrome (POHS). POHS is a leading cause of vision loss in Americans ages 20 to 40, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

The symptoms for POHS are similar to those of macular degeneration. These include the following:

  • Blank spots in vision, especially central vision
  • Distorted vision; straight lines appear bent, crooked, or irregular
  • Size of objects may appear different for each eye
  • Colors lose their brightness and do not look the same for each eye
  • Central light flashes or flickering

Individuals who experience any of these symptoms should see an ophthalmologist.