Fungus is a type of primitive plant, such as mushrooms, yeast and mold that are commonly found on plants, trees and in soil. Fungi spread through tiny spores that are dispersed in the air, and although most fungi are not dangerous, some fungi can cause infections to occur when you come in contact with these spores either by touching or inhaling them.
Fungi can be present on the dead tissues of our outer skin, nails and hair, and can invade your body through your airway or skin, and multiply in almost any body part, causing fungal infections. Infections can either be localized and superficial like skin infections, or can infect the deeper tissues, causing serious blood, lung and systemic diseases. Fungal infections initiate the body’s immune response causing inflammation and may also cause allergic reactions in some individuals.
Fungi grow well in warm and moist environments. So, you are at a higher risk of an infection if you use public pools, share your clothes and accessories, do a lot of outdoor activities such as gardening and trekking, or live in hot and humid places. Your risk of developing a fungal infection increases if you are on antibiotics, corticosteroids, or contraceptives. Certain conditions and procedures, like HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy and organ transplantation, which weaken your immune system, may make you more prone to fungal infections.
Types of infections
Some of the fungal infections that affect the skin include jock itch, athlete’s foot, ring worm, and scalp infections. They can cause redness, peeling, itching, and sores on the skin. Fungi can also affect your nails and hair. Nail fungus can spread deep into your nails and cause pain and discoloration of the nail, while a fungal infection in your scalp can cause boils, flaking of skin and hair fall out.
Fungi can infect your internal organs as well, causing more serious infections like lung infections, candidiasis (which can affect the mouth, fingernails or vagina), pneumocystis pneumonia (inflammation and fluid collection in lungs) and meningitis (inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord), which can sometimes be fatal.
Your doctor can diagnose superficial fungal infections by the appearance of the affected area, such as the skin, nails, or hair. Your doctor may also scrape your skin at the affected site and examine it under a microscope in order to identify the fungus. Potassium hydroxide prep is a simple test to confirm the diagnosis. A Wood's ultraviolet lamp uses UV light to examine the infected skin.
Deeper infections can be confirmed by testing blood, sputum, bone marrow, urine or other infected tissue samples. The fungi can be grown in a suitable culture for detection and identification. The level of antibodies in the blood or other body fluid (an immune system reaction to the infection) can also be determined to diagnose fungal infections.
Fungal infections can be prevented with good personal hygiene.
- To prevent athlete’s foot, wear shower sandals when using public pools, dry your feet properly after swimming or showering, dry out sweaty shoes before you wear them again, and do not share your socks.
- To prevent ringworm, always keep your pets clean as ringworm is often transferred from pets, wear protective gloves and footwear while gardening or working with soil, avoid scratching fungal infections as it can spread the infection across your skin.
- To prevent scalp infections, avoid sharing your hair brushes or hair accessories, keep your hair clean and dandruff free, and wash your bedspreads and pillow casings regularly.
- To prevent jock itch, change your underwear every day, keep your groin area clean and dry, and avoid sharing clothing and bath towels.
For infections of your skin and nails, medicines can be applied directly to the affected area known as topical antifungals. For more serious infections, oral and/or IV antifungal medicines may be necessary. Duration of treatment varies based on the type and location of infection and may resolve in a few days or require ongoing treatment for years.