Definition & Overview

If you’ve ever experienced or heard the terms vaginal yeast infections, athlete’s foot, or ringworm, then you have a basic idea of a fungal infection, which in simple terms means conditions that are caused by primitive organisms called fungus.

There are wide varieties of fungi but only a small portion of them is harmful to humans. In fact, out of the approximately 1.5 million different species, only about 300 can make a person sick. Some fungi thrive in the soil and plants, while others are present in the air, which is why fungal infections can occur if you touch a fungus or if you breathe it into your lungs.

The human body has a defense mechanism against fungal infections called the immune system. However, if your immune system is weak or if you are taking antibiotics, the fungus may thrive inside your body and damage your organs.

Many fungal diseases are only mild in nature and usually cause very little damage. For instance, skin fungal infections normally cause a rash. However, some fungal infections can be life threatening, such as fungal meningitis and bloodstream infections.

Some of the most common fungal infections are ringworms, candidiasis albicans, onychomycosis, jock itch, athlete’s foot, and yeast infections. Some are more difficult to kill than others are. A good example is onychomycosis, which is a fungal infection that occurs in the nail bed. Since the infection is underneath the nail, it’s difficult to reach and treat.

Cause of Condition

Anybody of any age can be affected by a fungal infection. Harmful fungi don’t choose between a healthy or sick person, but those with weak immune systems find it harder to fight off an infection. Some of the most common causes of weak immune systems are HIV/AIDS, cancer, organ transplants, hospitalization, stem cell therapy, and certain medications that weaken the immune system.

In addition to having a weak immune system, the risk of being infected is also increased by environmental factors. Fungi thrive in a warm and humid environment. Good examples are the gym, showers, and locker rooms.

Another reason why some people are more prone to infections than others are is poor blood circulation. If blood doesn’t flow freely throughout your body, then certain organs will find it difficult to fight off an infection. A good example is the skin. Poor blood circulation to the skin enables fungi to penetrate its defenses and affect the deeper layers of tissue.

Key Symptoms

The symptoms of a fungal infection largely depend on the type of fungal infection. Below are some of the most common fungal infections and their associated symptoms.

  • Athlete’s Foot – This type of fungal infection will display symptoms such as peeling and cracking on the feet, formation of blisters and red patches, and a burning and itching sensation.

  • Jock Itch – A jock itch appears on the buttocks, inner thighs, and genitals. It usually has a round reddish appearance.

  • Ringworm – Although it may seem that the condition is caused by a “worm”, it is actually a fungal infection. These look like red circular patterns on the skin. They are usually sore and cause the skin to become scaly. Ringworm is contagious but does not usually result in a serious condition.

  • Yeast Infection – Yeast infections can occur anywhere on the body. However, this type of fungal infection will thrive in areas that are warm and moist, which is why they usually appear in the groin and armpits. The part of skin that they grow on will be itchy and a rash is likely to develop.

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

Some fungal infections are visible, but others aren’t, especially those that affect the internal organs or bloodstream. However, if a fungal infection is visible, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the infection hasn’t affected other parts of the body.

Fungal infections can be cured, but only a doctor will be able to diagnose the extent of the damage. If you notice a fungal infection, or any of the symptoms, make sure that you visit your family doctor. The doctor will ask you when you first noticed the infection, where it likely occurred, and if you’re feeling any other symptoms.

Your doctor will then perform diagnostic exams, such as scrapings, throat swab, and ultra-violet light to determine the type of fungus.

Once the type of fungus has been identified, your doctor will decide on the appropriate treatment method. It’s important to remember that some fungal infections are more difficult to treat than others, so don’t be surprised if the doctor prescribes a variety of anti-fungal medications.

For superficial fungal infections, or those that only affect the top layer of skin, anti-fungal creams, drops, and ointment will normally be sufficient to treat the condition. However, if the infection occurs underneath the nails, it will need to be treated using oral medications or injections. It can take months before these types of infections are cured.

Aside from medications, fungal infections can be cured through natural means, such as eating garlic and consuming ideal amounts of vitamin C. Vitamin C and essential fatty acids help boost your immune system, making it more difficult for a fungus to thrive and cause damage. You should also consider taking probiotics, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. Probiotics are good bacteria that help the body fight off fungal infections.

Even though fungal infections can be treated and aren’t usually serious conditions, you should still try to avoid them. You can do so if you:

  • Keep your feet covered at public showers, lockers, and swimming pools
  • Keep your feet dry as much as possible
  • Wipe-off gym equipment or wear gloves to avoid touching the equipment directly
  • Don’t use other people’s personal belongings, such as towels, combs, and hairbrushes
  • Make it a point to wash your hands on a regular basis

  • Edwards JE Jr. Candida species. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 258.

  • Kauffman CA. Candidiasis. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 346.
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