A rare fungal infection that most commonly affects the brain or lungs

  • Age, gender, genetics, and lifestyle are not significant factors

Cryptococcosis is caused by the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans, which occurs in soil contaminated by bird droppings. If the fungal spores are inhaled, infection may develop in the lungs and/or the fungus may be absorbed into the blood, spreading to other parts of the body, most commonly the brain, skin, and bones.

People whose immunity is reduced, such as those who have AIDS (see HIV infection and AIDS) or who are undergoing chemotherapy, are most at risk from cryptococcosis. The fungus rarely causes serious illness in those individuals who are otherwise healthy.

In its most dangerous form, cryptococcosis can cause inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (see Meningitis). Symptoms may include fever, severe headache, and a stiff neck. Lung infections may result in chest pain, coughing, and shortness of breath. Infection of the skin may cause ulcers to develop. Affected bones may be painful.

What might be done?

A diagnosis of cryptococcosis is based on the presence of the fungus in blood, sputum, or body tissues. An MRI scan may also be done to look for signs of cryptococcal infection. If meningitis is suspected, samples of fluid from the spine will be tested (see Lumbar puncture). If the lungs have been affected, the levels of oxygen and other gases in the blood may be measured to assess lung function (see Measuring blood gases).

For severe cryptococcal infections, antifungal drugs are given. In people with AIDS, it may be difficult to eradicate the fungus from the body, although symptoms can often be well controlled. A mild lung infection in an otherwise healthy person should clear up without treatment.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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