Cryptococcosis is an infection caused by inhaling the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans. It is one of the diseases most often affecting AIDS patients. Cryptococcosis may be limited to the lungs, but frequently spreads throughout the body. Although almost any organ can be infected, the fungus is often fatal if it infects the nervous system where it causes an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).
The fungus causing cryptococcus, C. neoformans, is found worldwide in soil contaminated with pigeon or other bird droppings. It has also been found on unwashed raw fruit. Cryptococcosis is a rare disease in healthy individuals, but is the most common fungal infection affecting people with AIDS.
Once the cryptococcal fungus reaches the lungs, three things can happen. The immune system can heal the body without medical intervention, the disease can stay localized in the lungs, or it can spread throughout the body. In healthy people with normally functioning immune systems, the body usually heals itself, and the infected person notices no symptoms and has no complications (asymptomatic). The disease does not spread from one person to another.
Cryptococcosis is an opportunistic infection that puts people with immune system diseases at higher risk of developing more serious forms of the disease. In the United States, 6–10% of all patients with AIDS get cryptococcosis.
If the body does not heal itself, the fungus begins to grow in the lungs and form nodules that can be seen on chest x rays. In the early stages of infection, an individual usually only exhibits symptoms of a respiratory infection, such as a dry cough, so the disease is rarely diagnosed.
The fungus can remain dormant in the lungs and produce an active infection later if the immune system is weakened. If the disease becomes active, it can cause cryptococcal pneumonia in the lungs. Unfortunately, however, cryptococcal pneumonia has symptoms similar to other pneumonias (cough, chest pain, difficulty breathing), making it difficult to accurately diagnose. The infection can spread to other parts of the body, particularly the brain and central nervous system.
Most patients are not diagnosed as having cryptococcosis until they show signs of cryptococcal meningitis, or infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms appear gradually over a period of two to four weeks. Fever and headache are the most common symptoms, occurring in about 85% of patients. Nausea, vomiting, unwanted weight loss, and fatigue are also common. Other symptoms seen in 25–30% of patients are blurred vision, stiff neck, aversion to light, and seizures. Since the symptoms of classic meningitis, such as stiff neck and aversion to light, do not occur in many patients, diagnosis is often delayed. In addition to meningitis, inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and brain lesions called cryptococcomas or tortulomas can also develop.
In addition to the brain, the cryptococcal infection can spread to the kidneys, bone marrow, heart, adrenal glands, lymph nodes, urinary tract, blood, and skin. Often times preceding the development of cryptococcal meningitis, painless rashes and lesions that mimic other skin diseases, such as molluscum contagiosum, may develop. A small percentage of patients with brain infections show infections in other organs as well.
Tish Davidson, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,