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Here are some rare fungal infections you can get exploring parts of North America

The exploration of caves — often referred to as spelunking or potholing — involves several risks, but some are less obvious than others.

A fungal infection can be an uncomfortable experience — and it isn't uncommon to get one in Metro Vancouver and beyond.

But a trip to a place with a high concentration of certain bats and birds — or even just a dusty environment — could result in more than just an itch. 

If they plan on taking the road slightly less travelled, Metro Vancouverites should consider all of the risks involved. This is good advice regardless of where you are going, but it holds particularly true when you step off the beaten path. 

The exploration of caves — often referred to as spelunking or potholing — involves several risks, but some are less obvious than others.

Dr. Mary Berbee, a professor in the Department of Botany at the University of British Columbia (UBC), says there is a type of fungi that can be carried by bats and birds that can cause disease in humans. 

Histoplasma is a fungus that thrives in "moderate temperatures, rich soil, and moist environments" and droppings from several winged animals support its growth, including chickens, pigeons, starlings, blackbirds, and bats. While birds can't be infected with it because of their high body temperatures, they can carry the fungus on their feathers, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety.

Bats, on the other hand, can be infected with the fungus because they have a lower body temperature and they can excrete it in their droppings. 

High concentrations of the fungus can cause issues 

People get infected with histoplasma by breathing in its spores, resulting in an infection called histoplasmosis that shows up several days later. It usually affects the lungs but can sometimes affect other parts of the body, including the eyes, liver, central nervous system, skin, or adrenal glands.

Berbee says exposure to low amounts of histoplasma is unlikely to cause an infection. However, a high concentration of the fungus could cause severe symptoms. 

Individuals who fall ill have a fever, cough, and fatigue but most of them will get better on their own without medication. In some people, such as people who have weakened immune systems, the infection can become severe.

The fungus hasn't been observed in B.C. but it is widespread across the eastern United States and Canada. Thankfully, an infection is quite rare but "if you're getting a ton of exposure to the fungus" it can be dangerous.

Most people won't be in places with a mass exodus of bats, but someone who is exploring a bat-filled cave could face a potential fungi threat. Similarly, farmers, gardeners, landscapers, and workers involved in road construction or tree clearing may be at risk of infection. 

Valley fever (coccidioidomycosis) is an infection caused by the fungus coccidioides and is common across parts of the southern United States and Mexico. While many people who live in these areas have built up antibodies against it, there have been severe incidents. It can cause a problem for healthy people under special circumstances, Berbee explains. 

In 1972, an outbreak of coccidioidomycosis occurred among archeology students in California's Tehama County while they were excavating remains. At least 17 of them "contracted an illness clinically compatible with a diagnosis of coccidioidomycosis," according to The National Library of Medicine.

Scrapes can allow fungi to enter the body

People who plan on going armadillo hunting may also face some trouble.

"Fungi usually can't get past your skin but armadillo hunters have to reach through a hole to get the critters," said Berbee. "They can poke their arm with vegetation going into the burrow." 

When their skin is pierced, sporothrix fungi invade the human body via scratches on the skin and cause a disease called sporotrichosis.

Although the disease isn't fatal, Berbee notes that it can be "challenging" to get rid of. If you are going armadillo hunting, consider that it might not be legal in the state that you visit. But perhaps more importantly, some of these critters may carry something more alarming than the fungal infection you'd get from an infected scrape, although it is quite rare.

In the southern U.S., some armadillos carry the bacteria that causes Hansen’s disease in people — and that disease leads to leprosy. 

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