Warm weather, a healthy lifestyle and the outdoors brought New York native Kevin Gilligan to Arizona in 1996.
Gilligan, who lives in Fountain Hills, started a personal training business and took full advantage of the East Valley’s rocky topography when working with clients.
During one of those hikes the former police officer inhaled a fungus that would drastically alter his life.
"Three weeks later I was sniffly and I started getting upper body cramps. It got to the point where I couldn’t put my feet on the floor," he says. "It was like having a charley horse in your chest."
Doctors initially diagnosed pneumonia and sent Gilligan home with antibiotics. When the symptoms got worse, Gilligan returned to the hospital. This time, tests revealed that he had contracted coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever.
Each year thousands of people like Gilligan move to Arizona for a healthier lifestyle. Millions more come for a visit. But newcomers may not realize that while they’re out hiking or mountain biking, they may be exposing themselves to a slew of health problems, including valley fever, exacerbated allergies, heat-related illness, and harmful exposure to the desert sun, plant and animal life.
"People always have to learn this lesson the hard way," says Dr. John Whiteside, a practitioner of family medicine with Mayo Clinic Scottsdale.
One hundred people die each year from heat-related illnesses such as sunstroke or heat exhaustion, making it the biggest immediate threat to public health, says Will Humble, bureau chief for disease control with the Arizona Department of Health Services.
The next three months are critical. Traditionally, the number of cases begins to rise in April and peaks in June. Humble blames the low humidity during these months. Low humidity means that sweat, the body’s natural coolant, is working effectively. People don’t feel hot, so they’re not hydrating adequately.
Men are more likely to suffer from a heat-related illness by a ratio of 3-to-1.
"Men are exposed more, and they don’t drink the water they need," Humble says. "They’re doing yardwork or playing golf, and they get dehydrated quickly."
Humbles suggests drinking 1 liter of water for every hour of outdoor activity, whether you’re going for an easy walk or swimming.
OVEREXPOSURE TO THE SUN
One can always pick out the tourists hiking trails at Piestewa Peak or Camelback Mountain. They’re usually the ones who are sunburned.
"A lot of people who who come here from other places don’t realize how intense the sun is, and they get burned," says Sharon McKenna, Sun-Wise Program coordinator.
Arizona ranks second in the world and first in the nation for incidences of skin cancer. Only Australia surpasses Arizona.
McKenna, who was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2001, says about 80 percent of an individual’s lifetime exposure occurs during childhood.
If you plan to go out in the sun, McKenna advises wearing a wide-brimmed hat, covering exposed skin (sometimes long-sleeve shirts can actually be cooler than tank tops or short sleeves), avoiding the maximum exposure window of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and wearing sunblock with SPF 15 or higher.
There was a time when the Valley was a haven for allergy sufferers. The opposite is true today, when one in every three Arizonans suffers from allergies.
Most people go through a period in which they feel like "they’re having a holiday" from their allergies, Whiteside says. During that season or two, the body is becoming sensitized to the allergens in the air and develops an immune response.
Some people say their allergies come back with a vengeance.
Non-native species such as mulberry and olive trees are partly to blame, and the only respite most people have is during 115-degree weather, Whiteside says.
PLANT AND ANIMAL LIFE
I’ve had lots of unhappy contact with plant life," says Whiteside, an avid mountain biker who moved to Arizona eight years ago.
The cholla, or teddy bear cactus, is friend to no one. The cactus looks fuzzy, but closer inspection reveals thousands of spines. Hikers and mountain bikers might try to brush it aside, but end up lodged with spines.
Encounters with snakes, scorpions and spiders are other risks people face along the trails. More than 8,000 adults are treated for bites each year in Maricopa County, according to Banner Health Systems’ poison control center.
Most people infected with the disease never develop symptoms. People who are born or raised in Arizona will get valley fever as a child or adolescent, but the body usually walls it off.
"There’s really nothing you can do," says Whiteside. "It’s in our soil."
But valley fever can be a serious health problem for newcomers like Gilligan and visitors. About 3,000 cases are diagnosed each year. The symptoms are flulike and include aches, a fever and a body rash. The disease is treatable with antifungal medication, but some patients, like Judd Whitaker of Scottsdale, try surgery.
"The surgery is basically the cure," says Whitaker, who had an infected section of his lung removed eight weeks ago.
Gilligan turned to nutritional supplements to treat his illness and says he’s almost back to normal. He says the benefits of living in Arizona outweigh all that he’s gone through with the disease.
"Would I have moved to Arizona anyway?" Gilligan says. "Absolutely."
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