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What is Histoplasmosis?

Histoplasmosis is a type of fungal infection in your lungs caused by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum. This fungus is most commonly found in the soil of many parts of the world, including the Midwestern United States, Africa and South and Central America. Histoplasmosis often does not cause noticeable symptoms, but can sometimes cause fever, cough and shortness of breath.

There are three different types of histoplasmosis, depending on how long you have had symptoms and whether it has spread to the rest of your body. You can also have a type of histoplasmosis that primarily causes symptoms in your brain or eyes. 

Acute pulmonary histoplasmosis is the most common type of infection. Symptoms are similar to those of pneumonia, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. Depending on your exposure, symptoms could last from several weeks to several months.

Chronic cavitary pulmonary histoplasmosis is a long-lasting form of illness that is mostly seen in people with emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Symptoms will be similar to those of acute pulmonary histoplasmosis, accompanied by night sweats and weight loss. These symptoms can go on for months or even years. If left untreated, it can cause irreversible lung damage.

Progressive disseminated histoplasmosis occurs when the infection spreads from your lungs to other parts of your body. Symptoms will be similar to those of acute pulmonary histoplasmosis, along with fatigue, weight loss and skin ulcers.

Causes of Histoplasmosis

Histoplasma capsulatum lives in the soil and is most commonly found where there are bird or bat droppings in the soil. The fungus makes its way to your lungs when you breathe it in from the soil. From there, it enters your white blood cells and changes from a mold to an infection. If you are exposed to a lot of the fungus at once, it can cause mild or severe flu-like symptoms and breathing problems. People with weakened immune systems or certain lung diseases are more at risk for developing histoplasmosis.

You are more at risk for severe of chronic cases of histoplasmosis if you:

  • Have a weakened immune system.
  • Have COPD.
  • Are 55 years old or under 1 year old.

Serious complications of histoplasmosis can include:

  • Scarring or other lung damage.
  • Central nervous system histoplasmosis – if the fungus spreads to your brain, it can cause brain swelling, headaches, confusion, impaired thinking and symptoms similar to stroke.
  • Ocular histoplasmosis – if the fungus spreads to your eye, it can cause impaired vision or vision loss.

Symptoms of Histoplasmosis

Histoplasmosis often does not cause noticeable symptoms, but can sometimes cause fever, cough and shortness of breath. Other common symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Chest pain.
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches.
  • Rash or bumps on your lower legs.
  • Night sweats.
  • Weight loss.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Histoplasmosis

Your provider will perform a physical examination and review your medical history. They may test your blood, urine, mucus from your lungs, bone marrow or affected tissue to diagnosis histoplasmosis. Imaging tests, like X-ray or CT scans, may be used to look for changes or damage to the lungs.

Histoplasmosis can often be cured with antifungal medications in those with healthy immune systems. If you have mild symptoms that have not gone on for a long time and you are not at high risk for infection, histoplasmosis could potentially go away on its own. However, if left untreated, it could spread to other parts of the body. Your healthcare provider will determine the best course of treatment based on what kind of histoplasmosis you have and the severity of your symptoms.

Preventing Histoplasmosis

Preventing histoplasmosis can be hard to avoid if you live in an area where it is common. There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing histoplasmosis:

  • Avoid areas where you are exposed to dirt or dust, especially in areas where bats or birds are common.
  • If your job or hobby requires you to be near places where the fungus is present, use a mask to help filter the air you breathe.

If you have symptoms of any kind of infection and have a weakened immune system, talk to your healthcare provider right away.