Blastomycosis is an infection caused by inhaling microscopic particles (spores) produced by the fungus Blastomyces dermatitidis. Blastomycosis may be limited to the lungs or also involve the skin and bones. In its most severe form, the infection can spread throughout the body and involve many organ systems (systemic).
Blastomycosis is a fungal infection caused by Blastomyces dermatitidis. Although primarily an airborne disease, farmers and gardeners may become infected from contact with spores in the soil through cuts and scrapes. The fungus that causes the disease is found in moist soil and wood in the southeastern United States, the Mississippi River valley, southern Canada, and Central America. Blastomycosis is also called Gilchrist's disease, Chicago disease, or North American blastomycosis. Another South and Central American disease, paracoccidioidomycosis, is sometimes called South American blastomycosis, but despite the similar name, this disease is substantially different from North American blastomycosis. Canine blastomycosis, a common dog disease, is caused by the same fungus that infects humans. However, people do not get this disease from their dogs except only very rarely through dog bites.
Blastomycosis is a rare disease infecting only about 4 in every 100,000 people. It is at least six times more common in men than in women and tends to more often infect children and individuals in the 30-50 year old age group. People who have diabetes mellitus or who are taking drugs that suppress the immune system (immunocompromised) are more likely to develop blastomycosis. Although people with AIDS can get blastomycosis because of their weakened immune system, blastomycosis has not been one of the more common fungal infections associated with AIDS.
Causes & symptoms
Once inhaled, the spores of B. dermatitidis can lodge in the lungs and cause a localized inflammation. This is known as primary pulmonary blastomycosis. The disease does not spread from one person to another. In the early stages, symptoms may include a dry cough, fever, heavy sweating, fatigue, and a general feeling of ill health. In approximately 25% of blastomycosis cases, only the lungs are affected. As the disease progresses, small lesions form in the lungs causing the air sacs deep within the lungs (alveoli) to break down and form small cavities.
In another 35%, the disease involves both the lungs and the skin. Bumps develop on the skin, gradually becoming small, white, crusted blisters filled with pus. The blisters break open, creating abscesses that do not heal. Approximately 19% of infected people have skin sores without infection in the lungs.
The remaining approximately 20% of the infected population has blastomycosis that has spread or disseminated to other systems of the body. Symptoms may include pain and lesions on one or more bones, the male genitalia, and/or parts of the central nervous system. The liver, spleen, lymph nodes, heart, adrenal glands, and digestive system may also be infected.
A positive diagnosis of blastomycosis is made when the fungus B. dermatitidis is identified by direct microscopic examination of body fluids such as sputum and prostate fluid or in tissue samples (biopsies) from the lung or skin . Another way to diagnose blastomycosis is to culture and isolate the fungus from a sample of sputum. Chest x rays are used to assess lung damage, but alone cannot lead to a definitive diagnosis of blastomycosis because any damage caused by other diseases, such as by pneumonia or tuberculosis, may appear look on the x ray. Because its symptoms vary widely, blastomycosis is often misdiagnosed.
Blastomycosis must be treated or it will gradually lead to death. Treatment with the fungicidal drug ketoconazole (Nizoral) taken orally is effective in about 75% of patients. Amphotericin B (Fungizone) given intravenously is also very effective, but it has more toxic side effects than ketoconazole. Treatment with amphotericin B usually requires hospitalization, and the patient may also receive other drugs to minimize the its side effects.
Alternative treatment for fungal infections focuses on creating an internal environment where the fungus cannot survive. This is accomplished by eating a diet low in dairy products, sugars, including honey and fruit juice, and foods like beer that contain yeast. This is complemented by a diet consisting, in large part, of uncooked and unprocessed foods. Supplements of vitamins C, E, A-plus, and B complex may also be useful. Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium will replenish the good bacteria in the intestines. Some antifungal herbs, like garlic (Allium sativum), can be consumed in relatively large doses and for an extended period of time in order to increase effectiveness. A variety of antifungal herbs, such as myrrh (Commiphora molmol), tea tree oil (Melaleuca spp.), citrus seed extract, pau d'arco tea (Tabebuia impetiginosa), and garlic may also be applied directly to the infected skin.
Left untreated, blastomycosis gradually leads to death. When treated, however, patients begin to improve within one week and, with intensive treatment, may be cured within several weeks. The highest rate of recovery is among patients who only have skin lesions. People with the disseminated form of the disease are least likely to be cured and and most likely to suffer a relapse.
Because the fungus that causes blastomycosis is airborne and microscopic, the only form of prevention is to avoid visiting areas where it is found in the soil. For many people this is impractical. Since the disease is rare, people who maintain general good health do not need to worry much about infection.
- An area of inflamed and injured body tissue that fills with pus.
- The bacteria called that is usually found in yogurt.
- Small air pockets in the lungs that increase the surface area for oxygen absorption.
- A group of bacteria normally present in the intestine. Commercial supplements containing these bacteria are available.
- The removal of a tissue sample for diagnostic purposes.
- A state in which the immune system is suppressed or not functioning properly.
- The small, thick-walled reproductive structures of fungi.
- Mucus and other matter coughed up from airways.
- Not localized to a single area of the body but, instead, involving one or more body systems.
For Your Information
- National Organization of Rare Disorders, Inc. P.O. Box 8923. New Fairfield, CT 01812. 800-999-6673. http://www.pcnet.com.
- McGinnis, Michael R. "Blastomycosis." Medical Mycology Research Center, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. (April 1997). http://www.fungus.utmb.edu/f-atlas/blastom.htm.
- Vanderbilt University Medical College. "Blastomycosis." http://www.mc.vanterbilt.edu/peds/pid/infect/blastomy.html.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.