Fungal infections

This term is used to describe a range of skin conditions which are caused by fungi and include athlete’s foot, ringworm and intertrigo. They cause a variety of skin rashes which are easy to treat and effective.

Fungi reproduce in the air via spore dispersal which land on the skin or are inhaled into the lungs. Once there they thrive and cause an infection especially in people with a poorly functioning immune system.

Fungi

These are types of organisms which live in soil, air, water and plants and include mold, mushrooms and mildew. Some fungi live in the human body. Half of all fungi are harmless but the other half can cause a range of infections which include candida and thrush.

Certain kinds of fungi cause infections along with excessive growth of the usually harmless varieties.

Why do fungal infections develop on the skin? The reason for this is a protein within the skin called keratin which forms the basic structure of your hair, skin and nails. A fungal infection consumes this protein which enables it to grow and multiply, causing a range of symptoms such as a skin rash.

Several types of fungal infection

There are several types of fungal infections. There are those known as dermatophytes which are plant based fungi which affect both animals and humans.

And then there are diseases caused by yeast infections.

Examples of fungal infections caused by dermatophytes include:

  • Tinea (athlete’s foot)
  • Ringworm, e.g. scalp, body and groin areas
  • Nail infections

Examples of yeast infections include:

  • Thrush
  • Pityriasis
  • Intertrigo

Some of these infections are very common, for example, athlete’s foot, which most of us have experienced at some point in our lives.

Tinea

This is also more commonly known as athlete’s foot and occurs from exposure to damp, moist environments such as swimming pools, changing rooms and communal showers. The combination of a warm environment, fungi and bacteria result in itchy, cracked and peeling skin between the toes and other areas of the feet. In some cases it turns into blisters which ooze fluid if scratched or rubbed.

Athlete’s foot can spread to the hands, affecting the palms and fingers. The version which affects the feet is known as tinea pedis and the version which spreads to the hands is called tinea manuum.

Athlete’s foot is discussed in more detail as a separate section.

Ringworm

This is an itchy, red and inflamed rash, sometimes accompanied by scaly skin which looks very similar to psoriasis. There are 3 different versions of this disease which are:

  1. Tinea cruris (also known as ‘Jock itch’): this mainly affects young men and is characterised by an itchy, red, sore rash which develops in the groin and surrounding areas.
  2. Tinea capitis: this affects the scalp in young children and occurs from infected hair shafts which cause soreness, inflammation and possible hair loss. Some people become carriers of this disease without ever developing the symptoms themselves.
  3. Tinea corporis: this is ringworm which affects the body, for example the arms and legs or stomach. It takes the appearance of raised or flat red patches of scaly skin which grow and spread to other parts of the body.

Nail infections

There is a version of ringworm which affects the nails and is known as tinea unguuim. This results in thickened, cracked and misshapen nails which eventually fall out. Many people with athlete’s foot develop a nail infection at the same time.

This is discussed in more detail in our fungal nails section.

Thrush

A very well known yeast infection caused by the Candida Albicans which exists normally within the body. This fungus lies in a dormant state but is activated by illness, poorly controlled diabetes, pregnancy or use of antibiotics. This causes the fungi to grow and multiply, leading to small white patches within sensitive areas of the body. Examples of these include the vagina (in women) and the head of the penis (in men). It also develops in the mouth of newborn babies.

Pityriasis

This is also known as tinea versicolor: it mainly affects teenagers and adults and presents as pink, dark brown or white patches on the skin which have a scaly appearance. These patches develop on the face and body, in particular the chest and top of the back.

Intertrigo

This infection is also caused by the Candida Albicans fungus and develops in areas of the body where skin meets skin, e.g. armpits. This also includes folds of fat/skin and underneath the breasts. It presents as a series of whitish-yellow spots and scaly skin which are both sore and itchy.

Causes of fungal infections

Fungal infections develop for the following reasons:

  • Weak immune system due to a chronic illness or medications which suppress its normal function.
  • Steroid use
  • Antibiotics
  • Overweight or obese
  • Diabetes
  • Have suffered from fungal infections on previous occasions

There are certain conditions which are ideal breeding grounds for fungal infections. For example, moist or wet skin as a result of washing/showering or sweating which is not dried off properly. This enables fungi to thrive and cause an infection.

Cuts and grazes are another trigger. If these are not tended then they allow bacteria or fungi to grow and multiply, resulting in an infection.

Far more serious are fungal infections which have occurred due to a faulty immune system, caused by cancer or HIV/AIDS.

Symptoms of fungal infections

This depends upon the type of infection and the cause plus the area of the body which is affected. But what is common to all types is a skin rash. This rash is red, swollen and scaly or dry and itchy.

An infection can develop in one or more parts of the body. Some infections are very similar to other skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema and may be mistakenly diagnosed as such.

Diagnosing fungal infections

Your GP will examine the infection and ask you about your symptoms. He or she may take a small swab from the infected area which is then sent to a laboratory for analysis. This aids with the diagnosis. You may be referred to a dermatologist if your case warrants it.

Treatment for fungal infections

The majority of fungal infections occur on the surface of the skin which means topical treatment. By this we mean a topical (steroid based) cream which is applied to the infected area of the skin.

There are also a wide variety of creams, gels, lotions and sprays which are available over the counter from your pharmacist or on prescription from your GP. One example of this is a powder for athlete’s foot.

Mild versions of these products are obtained from your pharmacist but stronger medications are only available from your GP. This applies to both anti-fungal medicines and topical remedies.

Can you prevent a fungal infection?

There are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of this happening. For instance, if you suffer from athlete’s foot then remember to dry your feet thoroughly, wear cotton socks and use separate towels.

Wear loose cotton clothing and keep a separate set of sheets, towels and clothes to prevent fungal spores from spreading. Remember: this is a contagious disease which easily spreads from one person to another. So ensure that your skin is kept nice and dry and change your socks and shoes on a daily basis.

Think prevention rather than cure.