Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer, 2005.

What is histoplasmosis?

Histoplasmosis is a fungal infection caused by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, which grows in soil and material contaminated with bat and bird droppings. The fungus has been found in the droppings of domestic birds, such as chickens, starlings and other birds that often nest around the house.

The disease mainly affects the lungs with most patients often showing minimal or no symptoms.

What are the causes and risk factors for histoplasmosis?

Infection occurs by breathing in the spores that become airborne when contaminated soil is disturbed. Humans and animals such as dogs, rats and cats may become infected. The disease is not transmitted from human-to-human or animal-to-human.

Histoplasmosis is a common disease throughout the world, occurring in temperate and tropical climates such as parts of the USA, Africa and Australasia. It has been widely studied in certain areas of the USA where it is highly prevalent. The region often referred to as the “Histo Belt” includes Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia as well as other areas of southeastern and central US. In certain areas up to 90% of the adult population are infected with histoplasmosis.

Infants, young children, and older persons, particularly those with chronic lung disease are at increased risk for severe disease. Sometimes the disease may spread from the lungs to other organs (disseminated histoplasmosis). This is more commonly found in people with immunodeficiency such as those with cancer or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

What are the clinical features of histoplasmosis?

There are several clinical presentations of histoplasmosis.

Acute pulmonary histoplasmosis (lung disease)
  • Approximately 90% of patients have no symptoms
  • If symptoms develop, they will start within 3-14 days after exposure
  • Symptoms are similar to flu-like symptoms (chills, fever, headache, malaise, muscle pains)
  • Patients infected with large amounts may have difficulty breathing, chest pain, cough and other respiratory symptoms
  • Skin lesions and joint pain occur in 5-6% of patients, mainly female
Chronic pulmonary histoplasmosis
  • Occurs mostly in patients with underlying lung disease
  • Symptoms include coughing up blood, weight loss, malaise, fever and difficulty in breathing
  • Closely resembles tuberculosis with lung involvement
Progressive disseminated histoplasmosis
  • Occurs mostly in patients with weakened immune systems
  • Symptoms vary depending on the duration of the illness. Gastrointestinal, central nervous system and cardiac symptoms develop as the disease progresses.
  • 50-60% of patients have mouth and gum pain due to mucosal ulcers
  • Can be fatal if not treated
Ocular histoplasmosis syndrome (eye disease)
  • Approximately 1-10% of infected people in endemic areas have ocular (eye) involvement that is usually symptomless in its early stages
  • In later stages, abnormal blood vessels in the eye may develop and cause changes in vision that may eventually lead to blindness

Cutaneous features of histoplasmosis

Skin lesions of histoplasmosis are varied and can be caused by an immune reaction to an acute pulmonary infection (the lesions do not have the fungus in them) or as a manifestation of disseminated histoplasmosis (the lesions are infected).

How is histoplasmosis diagnosed?

Laboratory and radiological studies are performed to confirm the diagnosis of histoplasmosis.

What is the treatment for histoplasmosis?

Most people infected with acute pulmonary histoplasmosis that have normal immune systems and who are not experiencing any symptoms of the disease will recover spontaneously without any treatment. Otherwise healthy patients with mild symptoms need to be monitored. Patients with prolonged or severe pulmonary symptoms may need treatment with antifungal therapy. All cases of chronic pulmonary and disseminated histoplasmosis need to be treated with antifungal medications.

The antifungals ketoconazole and itraconazole are the drugs of choice to treat mildly symptomatic or prolonged acute pulmonary histoplasmosis. They are also useful in treating cutaneous or rheumatologic manifestations of the disease in patients with weakened immune systems.

Amphotericin B is the drug of choice for severe cases of acute pulmonary histoplasmosis, chronic pulmonary histoplasmosis and all forms of disseminated histoplasmosis. Chronic progressive disseminated disease may run a long course that lasts for years with long asymptomatic periods interspersed. Acute progressive disseminated disease may need life long treatment with antifungals to prevent relapses.

Related information

Email Newsletter

Would you like to receive our dermatology updates by email?


Submit your images

We're seeking high-quality photos of skin diseases.  


Machine diagnosis

Watch DermNet's proposal to create a 'Skin Disease Image Recognition Tool' - winner of the 2017 'Clinicians' Challenge Active Award' by the NZ Ministry of Health and HiNZ.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
DermNet NZ Newsletter