What is fungal infection?
Fungal infections can affect anyone, and they can appear on several parts of the body. A jock with athlete’s foot, a baby with thrush, and a woman with a vaginal yeast infection are just a few examples.
Fungi are microorganisms characterized by a substance in their cell walls called chitin. Some fungi, like many types of mushrooms, are edible. Other types of fungi, like aspergillus, can be extremely dangerous and lead to life-threatening diseases.
Different types of fungi can cause fungal infections. In some cases, fungi that aren’t typically found on or inside your body can colonize it and cause an infection. In other cases, fungi that are normally present on or inside your body can multiply out of control and cause an infection.
Fungal infections can be contagious. They can spread from one person to another. In some cases, you can also catch disease-causing fungi from infected animals or contaminated soil or surfaces.
If you develop signs or symptoms of a fungal infection, make an appointment with your doctor.
A fungal infection is also known as mycosis. Although most fungi are harmless to humans, some of them are capable of causing diseases under specific conditions.
Fungi reproduce by releasing spores that can be picked up by direct contact or even inhaled. That’s why fungal infections are most likely to affect your skin, nails, or lungs. Fungi can also penetrate your skin, affect your organs, and cause a body-wide systemic infection.
Some common types of fungal infection include:
- athlete’s foot
- jock itch
- yeast infection
- onychomycosis, or a fungal infection of the nail
Some types of fungi don’t normally cause infections in humans but can cause sickness in people with weakened immune systems. These are called opportunistic infections.
Athlete’s foot is also known as tinea pedis. It’s a type of fungal infection that can affect the skin on your feet, as well as your hands and nails. The infection is caused by dermatophytes, a group of fungi that can thrive in the warm and humid areas between your toes.
It’s particularly common among athletes and can spread from one person to another. You can also catch it from contaminated surfaces, like a public shower or locker room floors.
Athlete’s foot can cause an itching, stinging, or burning sensation between your toes or on other parts of your foot. Your skin might also crack, peel, or blister.
Your doctor may recognize athlete’s foot by looking at the symptoms on your skin. If the doctor isn’t sure, a small area of the skin can be scraped off and tested for the fungus.
There are several topical over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal medications you can use to treat athlete’s foot. If those don’t provide relief, your doctor can prescribe something stronger. Get the information you need to stop athlete’s foot in its tracks.
Jock itch is also known as tinea cruris. It’s a fungal infection that can affect the skin on your groin area, as well as your inner thighs and buttocks. Like athlete’s foot, it’s caused by dermatophytes, a group of fungi that thrive in warm and humid areas.
This type of infection mostly affects men and boys, but women and girls can develop it too.
Common jock itch symptoms include:
- a burning feeling
- changes in skin color
- flaking or cracking skin
- a rash that gets worse when you exercise
Often, a doctor will be able to recognize jock itch by looking at the affected skin. To help rule out other conditions, like psoriasis, they may take a scraping of skin cells and have them examined.
Jock itch can usually be treated at home by keeping the area clean and dry and applying OTC antifungal cream, powder, or spray.
If your symptoms don’t improve after two weeks of home care, see your doctor. They can prescribe stronger antifungal medications. Learn how to recognize, treat, and prevent jock itch.
Ringworm is a fungal infection that can affect your skin and scalp. Similar to athlete’s foot and jock itch, it’s caused by dermatophytes. Ringworm is also part of a group of fungi that grow on skin, particularly in damp and humid parts of your body.
It usually starts as a reddish, itchy, scaly rash. Over time, patches of ringworm can spread and form red rings.
Other signs include:
- patches that get blisters and start to ooze
- bald patches on the scalp
- patches that look like rings with a redder outside edge
- thick, discolored, or cracked nails (if the infection is in the nails)
A simple skin examination can find ringworm. The fungus glows under a black light, so your doctor can tell if you have it by shining the black light over the affected area. A small sample of the affected skin can also be scraped off and sent to a lab for testing.
Like jock itch and athlete’s foot, ringworm is often able to be successfully treated with OTC antifungal creams, sprays, gels, or ointments.
You may need a prescription if your case is more severe or the infection is located on the nails or scalp. Gain a better understanding of ringworm, including ways to prevent and treat it.
Candida albicans is a type of fungus that can infect your skin, mouth, gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract, or genitals.
It’s normal for small amounts of candida albicans to be present on your skin and in your body. But when these fungi multiply too much, they can cause an infection known as a yeast infection.
If you get a yeast infection in your throat or mouth, it’s called oral thrush. Thrush causes white patches to form in your mouth and throat. People who undergo prolonged antibiotic therapy often develop this type of infection.
In women, vaginal yeast infections are relatively common. They can cause:
- clumpy discharge
To check for oral thrush, your doctor can use a throat swab to rub the affected areas. Throat swabs look like a cotton bud. Your doctor can send the swab to a lab, where technicians will culture it to learn what types of fungi or other microbes are present.
Your doctor will perform a pelvic exam to diagnose a vaginal yeast infection. If they aren’t sure your symptoms are being caused by a yeast infection, they might swab the area and order a lab test.
Your treatment options will depend on the type of yeast infection you have and whether or not you get yeast infections regularly.
Thrush can be treated with oral antifungal medications. These can come in the form of lozenges, pills, or mouthwash. Find out more about oral thrush.
If you catch a vaginal yeast infection early enough, you might be able to treat it with OTC products. Otherwise, your doctor can prescribe antifungal medications that come as a cream, pill, or vaginal suppository.
Your doctor might also recommend probiotics, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. Probiotic supplements provide good bacteria that might help restore your body’s microbial balance. Learn more about the symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection and why early treatment is so important.
Onychomycosis is a common type of fungal infection that can affect your toenails, fingernails, and nail beds. It’s also known as tinea unguium.
Toenail fungus usually starts as a small light-colored spot on your nail. As it spreads deeper, it changes the shape and color of your nail. Over time, it can cause your nail to become thicker and more brittle.
Common signs include:
- scaling under the nail
- white or yellow streaks under the nail
- flakiness or crumbling of the nail
- thick or brittle nail
- lifting off the nail bed
To find out if you have toenail fungus, your doctor will likely scrape off pieces of the affected nail. They will examine these scrapings under a microscope.
This can help them tell the difference between a fungal infection and other conditions that cause similar symptoms.
It can potentially take weeks to treat fingernail infections and months to treat toenail infections.
OTC medications typically aren’t effective. Your doctor may prescribe a nail lacquer that’s brushed on like nail polish or an antibiotic you take by mouth.
Since this type of infection can be so hard to treat, it’s important to avoid spreading it. Learn how to protect yourself from fungal infections of your nails and nail beds.
Who is at risk?
There several things that can increase your risk of developing a fungal infection. These include environmental factors as well as what’s going on in your body when you’re exposed to a fungus.
Dampness and humidity
Sweating heavily or working in a warm, humid environment can increase your risk of a fungal infection. Fungi need a warm and moist environment to grow.
Walking barefoot in damp places, such as gyms, locker rooms, and showers, can also increase your risk. These public places are often rich in fungal spores.
Poor blood circulation
Any condition that causes poor blood circulation can raise your risk of infection. Poor circulation hinders your immune response and decreases your body’s ability to fight off an infection. Explore this list of causes of poor circulation.
If you’re a postmenopausal women, hormonal changes can reduce the acidity of your vagina. This might make you more vulnerable to vaginal yeast infections. Learn how to recognize the symptoms of menopause.
Suppressed immune system
If your immune system isn’t working properly, it can leave you vulnerable to fungal infections.
Many things can potentially weaken your immune system. For example, nutrient deficiencies, immunodeficiency disorders, smoking, and even stress can impair your immune function. Learn more about immunodeficiency disorders.
Nail and skin injury or infection
Even a small nail or skin injury or infection can allow fungi to get under your skin and affect deeper tissues. That’s why it’s important to wash wounds and cover them in a sterile dressing or bandage. Learn how to treat minor wounds and prevent infections.
Some types of medications can reduce your body’s ability to ward off fungal infections. For example, antibiotics destroy helpful bacteria along with harmful bacteria. This can allow fungi to thrive, free of competition.
Long-term use of corticosteroids can also increase your risk of fungal infection. Cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation, may put you at higher risk too.
If your immune system has been weakened, ask your doctor what steps you can take to limit your risk of fungal infections.
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