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A jock with athlete’s foot. A baby with thrush. A woman with a vaginal yeast infection. All three people have fallen prey to a fungal infection, which can occur in several places on our bodies. Fungi are microorganisms characterized by a substance in their cell wall called chitin.
Some fungi, like many types of mushrooms, are edible. Others, like aspergillus, can be extremely dangerous when they infect our bodies and lead to life-threatening diseases. In between are many other types of fungi that are capable of causing infections in our lungs, skin and nails.
A fungal infection is also known as mycosis. Although most fungi are harmless to humans, some of them are capable of causing disease under specific conditions. Fungi reproduce by releasing spores that can be picked up by direct contact or even inhaled. That’s why fungal infections often affect the lungs, skin, or nails. Fungi can also penetrate the skin to affect your organs and cause a whole body systemic infection. Some common fungal infections include:
Some fungi, called dermatophytes, thrive in the warm and humid area between the toes and particularly common among athletes. Athlete’s foot causes itching, scaling, peeling, or cracking of the skin.
Dermatophytes can also affect the groin area, producing an itchy fungal skin infection. It’s mostly a problem for men and boys, but women can suffer from the infection too.
Ringworm is a fungal infection that typically affects the skin and scalp. It usually starts as a reddish, itchy, and scaly rash. Over time, it gets larger and forms a red ring.
Onychomycosis is a very common fungal infection of the nail and nail bed. It usually starts as a small light-colored spot on the nail. As it spreads deeper, it changes the shape and color of the nail, and the nail becomes thicker and more brittle. It is often painful and recurrent.
Candida albicans is a specific fungi that can infect the mouth, vagina, stomach and urinary tract.
Some fungal organisms don’t cause infection in humans, but do cause sickness in people with suppressed immune systems.
Fungal infections are contagious and can spread from one person to another. But humans do have protections against fungi. For one, almost every part of the human body has non-disease causing bacteria that protect us from fungal infections. These bacteria deprive harmful fungi of space and nutrients, thereby keeping them in check. Secondly, even if fungi do manage to colonize the skin, the body’s immune system can often fight them off. High acidity levels in some environments such as the vagina provide another layer of protection.
But not all of the body’s defense mechanisms are infallible. In patients who are immune-suppressed for example, the immune system is unable to fight fungal infection adequately. In addition, prolonged use of antibiotics destroys both helpful bacteria, allowing fungi to colonize the skin and mucous. In postmenopausal women, hormonal changes reduce the acidity of their vagina, making them more vulnerable to vaginal yeast infections.
Sweating profusely or working in a warm and humid environment can increase your risk for 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 and can lead to a fungal infection.
Any condition that causes poor blood circulation in the skin can lead to infection. Poor circulation hinders the immune response and decreases its ability to fight fungal infection.
Having a small nail or skin injury or infection enables fungi to penetrate the skin and affect deeper tissues.
Most fungal infections are diagnosed by their appearance. But your doctor will ask you to describe how the condition began and progressed. Other diagnostic tools may be used for specific types of fungal infections.
In a nail infection, a doctor will scrape off pieces of the affected nail and examine it under a microscope. This helps differentiate onychomycosis from other conditions that thicken the nail.
Patients who undergo prolonged antibiotic therapy often develop oral thrush, a candida infection that causes white patches in the mouth and throat. A throat swab, which looks like a cotton bud, can be rubbed across these patches and later cultured in the lab to determine the presence of fungi and other microorganisms.
Under a black lamp or ultra-violet light (also called a "Wood’s Lamp"), some forms of fungal infections appear fluorescent while other infections do not.
Fungal infections are treated with a variety of antifungal drugs. The type you use depends on where the infection is located and how severe it is.
For superficial skin infections, you may use an antifungal cream, drops, or ointment. More serious infections, including those affecting the fingernails may require oral tablets or injections Treatment of fingernail infections can take weeks, but infections in the toenails may take months to clear.
Vaginal infections are usually treated with suppositories.
Many anti-fungal medications are toxic to the liver so patients need to be carefully monitored.
Some doctors may recommend alternative therapies. You may be advised to increase your consumption of garlic, a natural anti-fungal. You may also be told to boost your intake of vitamin C and essential fatty acids, which boost the immune system. In addition, you may be told to lower your intake of sugar.
Probiotics, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, are a relatively recent development. As their name suggests, probiotics provide good bacteria that help restore the body’s balance and compete with fungi for colonization.
Many patients develop fungal infections when they are being treated for another disorder, and their immune system is compromised. Make sure to consult with a healthcare provider. It also helps to avoid the prolonged usage of steroids or antibiotics.
Good hygiene is critical for avoiding fungal infections. Some specific tips:
Written by: Abdul Wadood Mohamed and Winnie Yu
Medically reviewed : George Krucik, MD
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