When you hear the word fungus, you might think of mushrooms growing on a wet tree trunk, mold on stale bread, or fungus in the back of your refrigerator. This is perhaps the most common form of fungi (more than one), but did you know that there are up to 1.5 million species of fungi, of which around 300 can cause disease in humans?
Is there a fungus among us?
Fungi in the form of yeast, mold, or fungi are found almost everywhere, including in the air, soil, plants, trees, and water. Some species live on human skin. Fungi grow in cool, moist areas, like the basement and between walls.
Fungi grow by releasing tiny spores (like plant seeds) into the air. These germs can land on your skin or you can inhale them. The highest concentrations of fungal spores are found in the air in certain moist, cool, dark places, such as construction or demolition sites, old barns, or dark caves.
What is a fungal infection?
Because fungi can be inhaled or live on the skin, fungal infections can occur in the lungs or on the skin. However, most infections do not extend beyond the skin and are called “superficial.” These superficial fungal infections can affect areas such as the nails, skin, and hair, and can include athlete’s foot or vaginal yeast infections. Fungal skin infections are usually harmless and can be treated with medication.
It is important to note that most people can breathe in fungal spores without developing an infection. However, people with weakened immune systems or lung disease can easily develop fungal infections in the lungs, blood, or other organs, including the sinuses, liver, spleen, and brain. Examples of people with weakened immune systems include those with HIV/AIDS or cancer, who are hospitalized, or who are taking medications that suppress the immune system (such as steroids or chemotherapy). Fungal infections of the blood, lungs, or other organs are called “systemic” infections and are usually more serious than superficial infections.
Common fungal skin infections
Ringworm is a common group of fungal skin infections that can affect areas such as the feet, groin, and scalp. Ringworm infection spreads easily from person to person, by touching an infected person or by touching surfaces where the fungus is present (for example, shower floors, areas around swimming pools, locker rooms). Some yeast infections are caused by a type of yeast, Candida. It can affect areas such as the skin, mouth, throat, and genitals. It occurs especially in areas where it is hot and humid, including the armpits, under the breasts, behind the knees, and the groin.
Here are some common superficial fungal infections:
Oral candidiasis: a fungal infection that causes white patches to appear in the mouth or throat.
Vaginal thrush: An itchy vaginal infection that can cause a discharge that looks like cottage cheese.
Diaper rash: a fungal infection of the skin on the baby’s bottom that causes red irritation, usually due to the heat and moisture inside the diaper.
Athlete’s foot: a fungal infection that affects the skin of the foot, especially between the toes.
Jock itch – An infection that occurs in the groin or upper groin.
Nail infection: a fungal infection of the fingernails or toenails. Nails become thick, yellow or white in color and are more likely to crack or break.
Superficial fungal and yeast infections are not usually a serious problem in healthy people, but they can easily occur in anyone and can be very bothersome. To learn about the different types of fungal infections, visit the sites below at Take the Next Step.
Treatment of fungal infections
If you are not sure if your skin condition is caused by a fungal infection, see your health care provider. Your doctor or pharmacist may recommend over-the-counter antifungal treatments (usually an ointment or cream). But keep in mind that prescription treatments (ointments, creams, or oral medications) may be necessary to treat a persistent fungal or yeast infection. If you have or think you may have a yeast infection, be sure to check with your doctor and/or pharmacist.
What can you do to prevent superficial infections?
Anyone can get a yeast infection, especially people with weakened immune systems. The wet, dirty, cold and unpolished areas of our body can