Chills, fatigue and a cough all sound like common flu symptoms, but health officials say they can also be symptoms of valley fever, an airborne infection that is on the rise in San Luis Obispo County.
In 2006, Morro Bay resident Jen Ford couldn't shake a cold. After three weeks of worsening symptoms, she found out she had valley fever. The diagnosis changed her life, leaving the mother and wife bedridden for two years.
"I was not able to cook or do laundry, I couldn't work, so my husband was basically single-parenting," Ford said.
She had a serious case of valley fever, a fungal lung infection that grows in certain types of soil.
"A person usually inhales some dust that becomes airborne and the dust has the spores in it," Ford explained.
Health officials warn cases of valley fever are on the rise, and a bounce back of winter rains may be to blame.
"Valley fever fungus likes to grow in the rain water, when it's wet. As the soil dries out, the fungus becomes airborne and people breathe it in," said Dr. Christy Mulkerin, San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department.
2016 was a record year for valley fever cases statewide, and 2017 is following suit.
"This year, we have had five deaths from valley fever," Dr. Mulkerin said.
In 2016, two people died in San Luis Obispo County from valley fever, but two years prior to that, there were no deaths from the disease.
"It's really hard to predict how the rates are going to be affected by the weather but we do know in the 1-2 years after heavy rain, there is an increased number of valley fever cases," Dr. Mulkerin said.
Animals can also come down with the illness, but they can't transmit the disease.
"You can't catch valley fever from another person. The only way you can get it is from the spore in the soil," Dr. Mulkerin said.
Residents can reduce the risk of illness by avoiding breathing in dirt or dust. If it's windy, keep your windows closed, and if you have to work outside, consider wearing a mask.
"There's a lot of work being done to develop a vaccine, but we are not there yet, so that's why it's really important to protect yourselves," Dr. Mulkerin said.
After two years, Morro Bay mother Jen Ford has made a full recovery.
"It was a horrible experience, but there is hope for survival. For me, its a greater appreciation for life," Ford said.
Most people make full recoveries, but if you have cold-like symptoms that last more than two weeks, see a doctor.