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What Is Cave Disease? Here's All You Need To Know

By Devika Bandyopadhya

Recently, you would have come across the news where 12 Thai boys along with their coach were trapped inside a flooded subterranean dungeon for over two weeks. These brave boys and their coach survived the extreme conditions of the dank Tham Luang Cave which is situated in the hilly regions of a jungle located in northern Thailand.

Although these boys and their coach are out of this trap and safe now, they could be at the risk of suffering from something known as "cave disease". Read on to know what exactly cave disease is and how it can be diagnosed and treated.

Cave Disease

Understanding Cave Disease

Also referred to as speleonosis, cave disease is something that usually attacks people who have a weakened immune system. Therefore, such people should strictly avoid exploring caves.

Detecting the presence of cave disease could be difficult and is dependent on a variety of factors. It primarily depends on the basic health of the person subjected to the risk of this disease and the amount of exposure that this person has had of the fungus.

A person who is healthy may not show any signs or symptoms of this illness. The chances of healthy people falling sick due to being exposed to Histoplasmosis are rare.

However, for people who have contracted this disease, the signs might be the basic flu-like symptoms that would include cough, fever, extreme fatigue, headache, chills, chest pain or body ache. The symptoms begin to occur about 3 to 17 days after the person has inhaled the air surrounding the fungus.

A person who has a weak immune system, for instance someone with uncontrolled HIV or one who is going through a cancer treatment is likely to show even much high grade symptoms such as confusion; this is when the disease has most likely spread from the lungs to the other parts of the body, including the brain. Severe infection can lead to death.

What Is Histoplasmosis?

This is a form of lung disease that is caused by an infection from a fungus. This fungus is common in areas which are most frequently associated with bat or bird droppings, for instance caves. Hence, it is also referred to as "cave disease". The infection occurs when one inhales the airborne spores of this fungus.

People who have weak immune systems are the ones who are at a risk of this infection. The symptoms of this infection are quite similar to the symptoms of pneumonia.

Treatment And Prevention Of Cave Disease

For most of the people, who possess average health, cave disease can be cured within a few days time and the good news is that this ailment heals on its own without any medication.

Nevertheless, there are certain antifungal medications that are prescribed to treat this infection. This is especially for people who show severe symptoms or for those with a weak immune system. The complete treatment of this illness can last from three months to almost one year.

When exploring a cave, it could get hard to avoid breathing in the spores. This is so because the fungus is found almost in all the areas within the cave.

The best way to prevent or at least lessen the risk of contracting this illness is by ensuring that you do not disturb any surface with bat or bird droppings.

It is in a person's best interest to always seek advices from local cavers and the public health departments in the town to identify the caves that are safe to be explored. The locals will help you in determining the caves that are at a high risk for Histoplasmosis. You can also consider wearing specialized dust-mist masks. These masks are such designed that inhaling spores is minimized.

If left untreated, those affected with this infection can develop weight loss, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue. This especially holds true for people who do not have a great functioning immune system. When the infection spreads to the central nervous system, symptoms such as headaches, seizures and confusion may occur.

Diagnosing Cave Disease

As the signs and symptoms of this infection are not specific, laboratory tests become important to diagnose the occurrence of this disease. Some of these diagnostic tests are:
• Detection of surface markers of Histoplasma (the fungus causing this infection) in a urine test.
• Blood tests that can measure the antibody's response to Histoplasma.
• Microscopic examination of infected tissue samples.
• Cultures of body fluids or tissues so that the fungus can be identified.
Chest X-rays are also normal in people with acute Histoplasmosis. However, people with healed Histoplasmosis can also show coin-lesions in their chest X-rays. CT scans could be done to identify areas where the infection might have spread.

In general, people with weak immune systems should not give in to the temptation of cave exploration as this tends to be a high-risk activity for them.

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    Read more about: disease symptoms health
    Story first published: Tuesday, July 17, 2018, 13:15 [IST]
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