Fungi are a species of microorganisms which include yeasts, molds, and mushrooms. Human exposure is inevitable as fungi are common in the environment, but most types aren’t harmful to humans. Some fungi produce spores which enter our bodies either through the skin or by inhalation.
Fungal infections occur when the invading fungi take over an area of the body and the immune system is too weak to handle the invasion. Infections range from superficial, localized skin conditions to serious lung, blood, or systemic diseases. Superficial infections include vaginal yeast infections, jock itch, athlete’s foot, barber’s itch, and scalp, hair, and nail infections. Most superficial fungal infections are easily treated with proper diagnosis and medications, however, when left untreated, some superficial fungal infections can spread to the blood or lungs, significantly increasing health risks.
Symptoms depend on the type of fungal infection:
Skin changes: Cracked, red, scaly, or peeling skin. A rash or blisters may form in the affected area.
Itching, stinging, or burning sensation
Discharge: Vaginal yeast infections may be accompanied by an unusual discharge which can be watery or resemble cottage cheese.
Pain: Vaginal yeast infections may be accompanied by pain during sex or urination.
Nail changes: Discolored, thick, cracked, and fragile nails are a symptom of fungal nail infections.
White patches on tongue or inside of cheeks: White patches are a sign of thrush, a yeast infection of the mouth.
Common types of mild fungal infections include:
- Athlete’s foot. Athletes are prone to this type of infection, also known as tinea pedis, because the fungus thrives in the warm, moist environment provided by sweaty socks and shoes. However, anyone can be affected, and the infection can spread from surfaces in warm climates.
- Fungal nail infection. Onychomycosis, a fungal nail infection, causes toenails or fingernails to turn yellowish, brown, or white; thicken; and break.
- Vaginal yeast infection. Candida, a yeast that normally lives in the body and on the skin, is typically kept in check by bacteria in the vagina, however, if the natural balance is upset, candida can grow out of control and cause an infection.
- Thrush.A candida yeast infection of the mouth throat, and esophagus.
- Jock Itch. A fungal skin infection, also called tinea cruris, most often found on the groin, buttocks, and inner thighs. Like athlete’s foot, it thrives in moist areas.
- Ringworm is not a worm, but the same fungus that causes athlete’s foot and jock itch. It lives on dead tissue including skin, hair, and nails. When it occurs in the beard area, it is sometimes called barber’s itch.
More serious or life-threatening fungal infections include:
- Invasive candidiasis. Occurs when candida enters the blood, heart, brain, or other organs. Risk is increased by hospitalization (particularly in the intensive care unit), surgery, having a central venous catheter, kidney failure or hemodialysis, diabetes, intravenous drug use, or a weakened immune system.
- Histoplasmosis. A fungal infection of the lungs caused by inhaling fungal spores found in soil and in bat and bird droppings.
- Aspergillosis. Commonly called farmer’s lung because the fungi responsible for the infection can be found in moldy hay.
- Fungal meningitis. A fungal infection of the brain or spinal cord.
Fungi enter the body through small cracks in nails, broken skin, or through inhalation of spores in the air. Once inside, infections occur when fungi are allowed to grow uncontrolled, often due to a weakened immune system. Conditions such as HIV, cancer, and organ and bone marrow transplants can weaken the immune system and increase susceptibility to fungal infections. Antibiotic use can sometimes kill off healthy bacteria that typically keep fungi growth in check and may also increase likelihood of infection.
Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to infections in the blood, organs, or other tissue and is a severe complication in immunocompromised patients. If not treated immediately, sepsis can result in tissue damage, organ failure, shock, and death. Signs and symptoms include confusion, shortness of breath, pain, sweaty skin, fever or shivering, and a high heart rate.
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