When you hear the word “fungus,” you might think of mushrooms growing on a wet tree trunk, mould on old bread, or mildew at the back of the refrigerator.
These are perhaps the most well-known forms of fungi (more than one fungus), but did you know that there are up to 1.5 million species of fungi, approximately 300 of which can cause illness in people?
Is There a Fungus Among Us?
Fungi in the form of yeast, mould, or mildew are found just about everywhere, including in the air, in soil, on plants and trees, and in water. Some live on the skin of people. Fungi like places that are cool and damp, like the basement and the spaces between walls.
Fungi grow by shedding tiny spores (think of plant seeds) in the air. You can get these spores on your skin or breathe them in. Fungal spores are more likely to be in the air in places that are dark, damp, and cool, like construction or demolition sites, old barns, and dark caves.
What is an infection from a fungus?
Fungi can live on your skin or be breathed in. This means that fungus infections can happen in the lungs or on the skin. Most infections, however, do not go beyond the skin and are termed “superficial.”
These superficial fungal infections can affect areas like nails, skin, and hair and might include athlete’s foot or vaginal yeast infections. Most fungal skin infections don’t hurt and can be treated with medicine.
Most people can breathe in fungal spores without getting sick, but people with weakened immune systems or lung disease are more likely to get fungal infections in the lung, blood, or other organs, such as the sinuses, liver, spleen, and brain. Examples of people with weakened immune systems include those with HIV/AIDS or cancer who are hospitalised or are taking medications that suppress the immune system (e.g., steroids or chemotherapy) such as those that affect the sinuses, liver, spleen, and brain.
Examples of people with weakened immune systems include those with HIV/AIDS or cancer who are hospitalised or are taking medications that suppress the immune system (e.g., steroids or chemotherapy). Fungal infections of the blood, lungs, or other organs are called “systemic” infections and are generally more serious than superficial infections.
Common skin infections caused by fungi
Tinea is a common group of skin infections caused by fungi that can affect the feet, groyne, and scalp, among other places. Tinea infections are easily passed from person to person by touching someone with the infection or touching surfaces where the fungus is growing (e.g., shower floors, areas around swimming pools, and locker rooms).
Candida is a type of yeast that can cause some fungal infections. It can affect the skin, the mouth, the throat, and the genital area. It happens most often in warm, damp places, like the armpits, under the breasts, behind the knees, and the groyne.
Here are some common fungal infections on the skin:
Yeast infections that appear as white spots in the mouth or throat are known as oral thrush.
Vaginal yeast infection: an infection of the vagina that can cause itching and a white discharge that looks like cottage cheese.
A fungus causes diaper rash, which is an infection of the skin on a baby’s bottom. The warm, damp environment inside the diaper is typically what causes it.
Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that affects the skin of the feet, particularly between the toes.
An infection on the groyne or upper thigh is called “jock itch.”
An infection of the fingernails or toenails caused by fungus is called a nail infection. The nails get thicker, turn yellow or white, and are more likely to break or crack.
In healthy people, yeast and fungal infections on the skin are usually not a big deal, but they can happen to anyone and can be very annoying. Visit the websites listed under “Take the Next Step” to learn more about the different kinds of fungus infections.
How to treat fungal infections
If you are unsure whether a fungal infection is at the root of your skin issue, talk to your doctor. Your doctor or pharmacist can suggest antifungal treatments you can buy over the counter (usually ointment or cream).
But keep in mind that ointments, creams, or medicines you take by mouth may be needed to treat fungal or yeast infections that don’t go away on their own. If you have a fungal infection or think you might have one, you should see your doctor and/or pharmacist.
What you can do to keep skin infections from happening
Fungal infections can happen to anyone, but people with weak immune systems are more likely to get them. Parts of our bodies that are damp, dirty, cool, and don’t get much air can be a breeding ground for fungal infections.
This could also apply to your toenails. It’s helpful to know how to avoid them. Here are some things you can do to avoid getting another fungal infection:
Keep your whole body clean, including your teeth (to help prevent thrush). Cleanse and dry your skin.
Make sure your feet are clean, dry, and cool. Change your socks every day and keep them clean. Put on shoes that let your feet breathe.
Do not walk around barefoot in public places like locker rooms or showers.
You should cut your fingernails and toenails short and clean.
If you touch a person or an animal, wash your hands. Fungus infections can spread.
If you think your pet has ringworm, you should have your vet check for it and treat it.