Fungi, as most of us know are plant-like microorganisms that occur in nature. Certain fungi, like mushrooms, are well known to us. However, not all fungi grow on trees, stale bread, or behind the kitchen sink. Some fungi grow on human skin, causing infections. As there are certain commonly-occurring fungal infections, it’s strongly recommended that everyone be aware of these.
Most fungal infections are easily treatable and are not known to be life-threatening. But if left untreated, fungal infections can spread and cause complications. Read on to learn more about both common and uncommon types of fungal infections, and to know if you could be at elevated risk for this kind of skin problem.
Common Types of Fungal Infections
Fungi are found almost everywhere in places we live. These organisms live in soil, outdoor plant areas, and on damp places inside our homes. Out of the millions of fungi on earth, only around 300 types are known to cause skin infections in people. And even out of these, you are only most likely to encounter only one or two types under normal circumstances.
Here are the most common types of fungal infections that affect people:
Candida (Yeast) Infections
Candida is the scientific genus name for a group of yeast. About 20 types of candida yeast can cause infections in people. When we talk of a “yeast infection,” it most commonly refers to fungal infections that occur in the vagina. Candida infection can also occur in the mouth or throat areas, commonly referred to as oral thrush.
The candida that causes infections in us don’t come from outside areas. Candida yeasts actually reside in our intestinal tract and even mucous membranes. The yeasts don’t normally cause infections. However, certain conditions can cause these internal yeasts to overgrow and thus infect parts of the body. Overgrowing candida sometimes enter the bloodstream and gets transferred around the body, in which case the condition is known as invasive candida.
Oral thrush or candidiasis can occur when the environment in your mouth, throat or esophagus changes in a manner that is highly favorable to fungal growth. The candida in your digestive tract can multiply and migrate to your oral tract causing an infection.
Occurrence of oral thrush is actually uncommon in adults. But this condition is known to occur mostly in small infants, especially those under a month old. Certain diseases can make adults more vulnerable to oral thrush. Candida infections in the esophageal tract are quite common among those who have HIV/AIDS. Adults with cancer and diabetes could be at elevated risk for this type of infection.
Symptoms of oral thrush include telltale white patches observable in the oral cavity in areas like the tongue, inside the cheeks, palate, and throat. Those infected may feel soreness and a feeling like there’s cotton in the mouth. A sore throat is common and patients may experience pain when swallowing. Loss of taste and redness inside or around the corners of the mouth are also easily observable symptoms.
Unlike a common sore throat, oral thrush doesn’t develop into a cough or a sneeze. If you suspect you have oral thrush, immediately see a general physician or a dentist, who will prescribe an anti-fungal medication. Adults can reduce the risk of oral thrush by maintaining good oral health.
Vaginal candidiasis or vaginal yeast infections occur when the acidity of the vagina changes in a manner that allows the yeast to overgrow. This condition is common among women. Women who are on antibiotic treatment may get vaginal yeast infections during or soon after. Women who are pregnant, diabetic, take hormonal contraceptives, or have weakened immune systems due to conditions like HIV are at elevated risk for vaginal yeast infections.
Vaginal yeast infections can cause severe itching and soreness in the genital areas. Those infected are likely to experience discomfort or pain when urinating and pain when having sex. Vaginal discharges that are unusual also commonly occur as a symptom of this condition.
Vaginal yeast infections are usually mild, but can become severe and enter into the vaginal walls if left untreated. Vaginal candidiasis has to be diagnosed with a laboratory test administered by a healthcare provider. However, women can also use at-home kits to self-diagnose this condition. While there’s little harm in using an at-home kit, women are strongly encouraged to visit a health professional and get a formal diagnosis as well.
Yeast infections in the vagina are treated with antifungal medication, commonly boric acid. The medication has to be applied inside the vagina using an applicator and around the vulva if necessary. An oral form of antifungal medication is also available to treat vaginal candidiasis.
Fungal Nail Infections
One of the most common types of fungal infections in people occur under the nails. Medically known as onychomycosis, some lay people may also know fungal nail infections as “athlete’s foot.” The infection can occur under both toenails and fingernails.
Unlike with yeast infections, we get fungal nail infections from many different types of yeasts and mold that live in the environment surrounding us. The fungi can enter the nails through small cracks in the skin or the nail. Being exposed to infected nails, such as by sharing socks, can increase the risk of getting this infection.
Fungal infections cause your nails to become discolored. The nails may become really thick and start to break or crack when infected. Fungal nail infections don’t cause pain if the condition is mild. Severe infections may cause pain.
Any adult can be vulnerable to fungal nail infections. This condition can be difficult to cure with typical antifungal creams. The most common treatment is an oral antifungal pill. Infected patients may have to receive treatment for months or even up to a year to completely clear the infection. In extreme cases, doctors may have to remove the nail completely to clear off an infection.
It’s highly recommended properly wash your hands and feet and keep fingernails dry to prevent the risk of the disease. Sweaty socks, as worn by athletes, can increase the risk if proper hygiene practices are not followed. Doctors recommend all adults to avoid walking barefoot in public bathrooms, showers, or locker rooms to reduce the risk of fungal fingernail infections.
Other prevention methods include not sharing nail clippers or filing equipment with others. Going to nail salons can expose you to fungal nail infections. Only visit nail salons that are licensed and meets sanitary regulations. The nail salon must sterilize equipment like clippers to reduce the risk of transferring a fungal nail infection among patrons.
Ringworm is a fungal infection, not a medical condition caused by worms as the name suggests. It’s so-called because the infection causes a circular or ring-like rash. Ringworm occurs in both humans and pet dogs and cats. If a pet is infected with ringworm, it can easily transfer to humans and other pets in the same household.
Fungal infection Diagnosis and Symptoms
Ringworm may be known by other names based on where the condition occurs. When this infection occurs on feet, it’s known as “athlete’s foot,” a well-known infection transferred in locker rooms. The fungus that causes the ringworm can live on surfaces other than skin, such as beddings, clothes, towels, and upholstery.
Both adults and children can get ringworm. This infection is rather uncomfortable and can occur in any skin area, including nails. The infected areas may feel very itchy and have red or scaly skin. A rash usually occurs accompanied by hair loss. Patients can experience the tell-tale signs of ringworm within days or up to two weeks after being exposed to the fungus.
When ringworm occurs on feet as athlete’s food, it will cause red and peeling skin between the toes, especially the pinky toe. Blisters are common too. Ringworm on the scalp appears as a reddish and circular bald spot that grows in size as the infection spreads. When this fungus infects the groin region, the condition is commonly called “jock itch.” Ringworm in groin is marked by reddish and itchy spots.
Why is Ringworm so Common?
Ringworm has three common sources of infection: from animals including pets and livestock, from other infected people, and from coming into contact with ringworm on various surfaces. Ringworm thrives in damp areas such as bathroom floors, public showers, and locker rooms.
Healthcare professionals diagnose ringworm by sending a skin scraping for a lab diagnosis. Ringworm is treated based on where in the body it occurs. Athlete’s foot and jock typically responds to over-the-counter antifungal creams and powders.
Severe groin or feet ringworm is treated with prescription antifungal medication. Ringworm in these areas can be cleared within two to four weeks. Scalp infections usually require prescription antifungal medication. Scalp infections may take up to 3 months to fully become cured.
Because ringworm is so common, prevention is the key to protecting your skin. You can be at elevated risk for ringworm infections if you use public areas like showers and locker rooms. Athletes who sweat excessively are particularly cautioned against this type of infection.
Preventing Ringworm Infections
To prevent ringworm, shower daily to keep your skin clean. Keeping your skin dry is also important. Avoid walking barefoot in damp public areas. Shorten your nails every month. Keep your socks and shoes clean. Dry out shoes that tend to get damp because of sweating. Change your socks every day and keep each pair clean and dry.
Is someone in your household is already infected with ringworm, then don’t share towels or clothing with that person. You may need to clean upholstery and living areas in the house everyone uses. Keep surfaces clean and dry.
Wash your hands with soap after touching pets to prevent ringworm transference. Pets who have ringworm must be immediately be taken for veterinarian treatment. You will have to disinfect and vacuum the areas the pet usually occupies to prevent recurrence of the infection. Disinfected like chlorine bleach, benzalkonium chloride, and similar antimicrobial detergents can kill ringworm spores.
Other Fungal Infections
Here is a list of fungal infections that can affect humans but rarely do so:
Cryptococcus neoformans fungus is found just about everywhere in the world. Nearly all of us are exposed to this fungus in our lives. While most people don’t get infected by C. neoformans following exposure, you can get sick if your immune system is weakened by a disease.
Candida auris is classified as an “emerging fungal infection” that has caused much concern at the CDC. This fungus is troublingly resistant to most common antifungal treatments. So far, known outbreaks have occurred in healthcare facilities. People who are in hospice care are the most at risk for this type of infection. Candida auris requires a lab test to identify, but due to its nature and lack of current medical information, it’s sometimes misidentified.
Fungal Eye Infections
Fungal infections in the eye are extremely rare. These infections mostly occur following injuries to the eye, corneal infections, inflammation in the eye, or other infections in the interior of the eye. If the eye injury was caused by plant material like a stick, then a fungal eye infection is a possibility. Many different types of fungi can cause these rare infections, so treatment is based on the type of fungus. Prescription antifungal eye drops are the most common type of treatment, though eye injections, oral pills, and intravenous treatment are also available.
Who is Most at Risk for Fungal Infections?
Fungal infections are common and are rarely life-threatening. Technically, anyone can get a fungal infection. But some people are at more risk for these types of infections. Those in this high-risk group can also contract severe forms of infections that put their lives at risk.
Fungal infections are a risk for people with weakened immune systems. Certain diseases can cause the immune systems to function less optimally than it normally is. The best known if these diseases is HIV/AIDS, and people who have this condition should take extra care against fungal infections. Doctors call fungal infections “opportunistic” diseases as even a minor crack in the immune system could allow a spore to slip through.
Other than diseases, some drugs can dampen your body’s immune response. Corticosteroids, steroid hormones, can suppress the immune systems. If you are taking a corticosteroid for conditions like inflammation, arthritis, bronchitis, asthma, and so on, you could be at risk for a fungal infection until after your treatment concludes.
Cancer patients are also at risk of fungal infections because of weak bodies and chemotherapy, which inhibits the immune response to a certain degree. Diabetes also takes a toll on your immune response and patients could be at higher risk for certain types of fungal infections.
Fungal infections are rarely not mild, but if left untreated, the infection can become severe and hard to treat. Some fungal infection can look like viral or bacterial infections. Antibiotics don’t treat fungal infections. Therefore, it’s very important to consult with a doctor if you suspect that you might have a fungal infection.
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