Histoplasmosis is an infectious disease of the lungs caused by a fungus called Histoplasma capsulatum. The infection sometimes can spread to other parts of the body.
This Histoplasma organism thrives in moderate temperatures and moist environments. Droppings from chickens, pigeons, starlings, blackbirds, and bats support its growth. Birds are not infected with it because of their high body temperatures, but they do carry it on their feathers. Bats can be infected because they have a lower body temperature than birds and can excrete the organism in their droppings.
To multiply, Histoplasma capsulatum produces small spores called conidia. The conidia of Histoplasma capsulatum are only two millionths of a meter (microns, Ám) in diameter. When these conidia are inhaled, they are small enough that they enter the lungs and start an infection. Many of these infections are easily overlooked because they either produce mild symptoms or none at all. However, histoplasmosis can be severe and produce an illness similar to tuberculosis.
When a person breathes in the conidia (spores) of Histoplasma capsulatum, the lungs' defense mechanisms attempt to neutralize them. Not all the conidia are neutralized. The ones that avoid the defense start an infection. The symptoms of the infection appear within 5 to 18 days after exposure, most commonly in 10 days.
There are five different forms of infection, as follows:
The absolute number of cases of histoplasmosis in Canada at this time is not known. In the St. Lawrence River Valley, where the infection may occur frequently, 20-30 percent of the population test positive. It is estimated that over 50 million people have been infected in North America with about 500,000 persons testing positive each year.
Confirmation of a histoplasmosis diagnosis often requires laboratory examinations which identify Histoplasma capsulatum in sputum or lung biopsy. Blood and skin tests, and x-rays may be performed but they are only of secondary value in diagnosis.
Most patients who develop histoplasmosis do not require treatment. Some may only require supportive treatment that relieves the symptoms of the disease. Severe symptoms with a large involvement of the lungs require treatment with specific antifungal drugs.
Persons whose occupations involve contact with the soil, in particular soil enriched with bird and bat droppings, are at high risk of acquiring infection. They include:
Others who may be at risk include archaeologists, geologists and medical laboratory technicians who handle cultures of the organism.
Prevention of histoplasmosis relies on avoiding exposure to dust in a contaminated environment. Before anyone cleans chicken coops or other contaminated soil, spraying with water is advisable to reduce dust.
Persons working in contaminated areas should use protective clothing such as gloves and coveralls. They should also use a respirator equipped with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that is capable of filtering particles down to two microns in size. For major clean up operations of prolonged exposure, a powered air purifying or supplied air respirator may be necessary.
Document last updated on August 18, 2005