Education, Infectious Diseases

A Guide to Fungal Infections

Author Kimberly Hazel , 10-May-2022

When we think of fungus or fungi, we tend to think of mushrooms or perhaps our younger siblings. Fungi have a wide variety of roles to play in our ecosystem and our bodies. They are a large and diverse group of organisms that can be found in nearly every environment on Earth. Speaking from an environmental standpoint, fungi are responsible for a lot of different natural processes and they are some of the largest (and sometimes smallest) organisms on earth.


In 1998, scientists discovered a giant fungus in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. This fungus, Armillaria ostoyae, is believed to be the largest known organism in the world. It covers an area of nearly 2,400 acres (965 hectares) and weighs an estimated 200 tons. This fungus is believed to be thousands of years old. It grows underground, spreading through the roots of trees. When a tree dies, it continues to grow on the dead tree. It produces mushrooms, which release spores that spread to other trees but are not harmful to humans.


Medically speaking, however, fungi are most commonly associated with infections of the skin, nails, and hair. These types of fungal infection go by a variety of names like:

  • yeast infections
  • invasive fungal infections
  • mycelial fungal infections
  • skin fungal infections
  • fungal toenail infections
  • fungal nail infections
  • fungal skin infection


Some species can also cause more serious diseases, such as meningitis or pneumonia. While the vast majority are harmless to humans, a small number of species can be dangerous. Therefore, it is important for medical professionals to be aware of the different types of fungus and their potential effects on human health. In some cases, fungi can be used to treat certain medical conditions. 


For example,  Penicillium chrysogenum is used to make the antibiotic penicillin. In other cases, fungi can be used to help prevent infection like Trichophyton rubrum which is used in the manufacture of athlete’s foot powder. While fungus can have both positive and negative effects on human health, it is generally considered to be a beneficial component of the natural world.


What is a Fungal Infection and How Does it Impact the Skin?


A fungal infection is a condition that occurs when a fungal organism invades and grows in the tissues of the body. Fungi are a type of plant life that includes yeasts, molds, and mushrooms. They are found in nearly every environment, including the human body. While most fungi are harmless, some can cause infections when they invade the skin or organs. The symptoms of fungal infection depend on the type of fungus involved and the location of the infection. Treatment typically involves antifungal medications.

Fungal infections can occur in almost any area of the body, but they are most common on the skin, nails, and hair. There are common types of fungal infections and these conditions are usually not serious and can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams or powders. However, more serious infections can occur in people with weakened immune systems. These infections can involve the lungs, liver, or brain and can be life-threatening. Treatment for these infections often requires hospitalization and sometimes surgery.


The Most Common and Some Invasive Fungal Infections


There are many different types of fungal infections, but some are more common than others. The most common fungal infections include:

  • Athlete’s Foot
  • Jock Itch
  • Ringworm
  • Yeast Infection


Each of these infections is caused by a different type of fungus, and they can all be treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams or powders. However, if the infection does not respond to treatment, it may be necessary to see a doctor for prescription medication. These infections can be uncomfortable and difficult to get rid of, even if it is a common fungal infection, but with the right treatment, they can be cleared up relatively easily.


Fungi Types


There are many different types of fungi, and the main types that cause infections are dermatophytes, Candida, and Aspergillus. Dermatophytes are soil-dwelling fungi that invade the skin, hair, and nails. They are the most common type of fungus to cause infections of the skin, such as athlete’s foot, jock itch, and ringworm.

Candida is a type of yeast that normally lives in the gastrointestinal tract but can overgrow and cause infection if the immune system is weakened or there is an increase in sugar levels in the body. Common candida infections include thrush.

Aspergillus is a type of mold that can cause serious respiratory infections in people with weakened immune systems. It is important to see a doctor if you think you have a fungal infection, as some types can be difficult to treat and may cause serious health problems if left untreated.

More than an Itch: Symptoms of Fungal Infections


Common symptoms associated with fungal infections include itching, redness, and scaling. The fungus can also cause the skin to blister and peel. If the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body and cause more serious health problems The fungus usually enters the body through tiny cuts or breaks in the skin, and it can also be spread by sharing contaminated clothing or towels.

Fungi thrive in warm, moist environments, so people who sweat heavily or who have damp skin are at increased risk for developing a fungal infection. Some types of fungi can also cause serious respiratory infections.


How is a Fungus Diagnosed?


Fungal infections are diagnosed through a combination of physical examination and laboratory testing. The most common symptom of a fungal infection is the presence of one or more patches of skin. These patches may be itchy, red, scaly, or have a distinctly different color than the surrounding skin.

During the physical examination, the doctor will look for these and other signs of an infection. Other signs can include hair loss, nail changes, and burning or itching. They will also ask about your medical history and any risk factors you may have for developing a fungal infection.

Laboratory testing is typically used to confirm the diagnosis. A sample of skin or nails can be obtained and examined under a microscope to look for the presence of fungi. In some cases, cultures may also be performed in order to identify the specific type of fungus involved.

They can sometimes be difficult to diagnose due to their nonspecific signs and symptoms. As a result, it is important to see a doctor if you think you may have an infection. Thankfully, these infections are relatively common and can usually be effectively treated with medication.


Treatment for Fungal Infections


With proper treatment, most fungal infections can be successfully controlled. Some infections are more difficult to treat and may require long-term treatment In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove infected tissue.

Fungal infections can be difficult to treat because fungi are resistant to many commonly used antibiotics. As a result, antifungal medications are often used to treat these infections. These medications can be taken orally or applied directly to the affected area.


What is an Antifungal and How Does it Work?


Antifungal medications work by killing the fungi that cause the infection. Some common antifungal drugs include clotrimazole, ketoconazole, and miconazole. Antifungal medications are available without a prescription for some mild infections. However, more severe infections may require a prescription from a healthcare provider.

Antifungal medications were first created in the 1950s. Today, there are many different types of antifungal drugs available to treat a variety of infections. There are three main types of antifungals: azoles, polyenes, and allylamines.

  • Azoles work by interfering with the ability of fungi to make new cells.
  • Polyenes kill fungi by binding to a molecule called ergosterol, which is found in fungal cell membranes.
  • Allylamines block the production of ergosterol.


When taken as directed, these medicines are safe and effective. However, some people may experience side effects such as stomach upset, headache, or rash. If you think you may have a fungal infection, talk to your healthcare provider about whether an antifungal medication is right for you.


Modes of Transmission: How Fungi are Spread


Fungi reproduce by spreading microscopic spores. These spores are often present in the air and soil, where they can be inhaled or come into contact with the surfaces of the body, primarily the skin. There are a few different ways that fungi can spread. These are known as modes of transmission. These modes include contact, airborne, droplet, vectors, and vehicular (contaminated inanimate objects such as food, water, and fomites).

Contact Spread or Surface Spread


Contact transmission for fungi occurs when the fungi are transferred from one person to another through direct contact. Fungi that are spread through contact are often found on the skin or in mucous membranes. These fungi can be passed from person to person through direct contact or indirectly through contaminated objects, such as towels or clothing. This means that when someone touches a surface that contains fungi, like an athlete’s foot, they can transfer those fungi to their own feet.

Airborne Spread


Some fungi are spread through the air. Fungal infections that are spread through the air often occur in environments where there is a lot of dust or mold, such as construction sites or storage warehouses. The spores of these fungi can become airborne and be inhaled by people in the area, causing them to become ill.


Droplet Spread


Studies have shown that certain types of fungi can be spread via droplets or consolidated droplets. However, the antifungal properties of many substances can help to prevent the spread of these infections. In general, fungi thrive in warm, moist environments, and they are often spread through contact with contaminated surfaces.


Vector Spread


It is possible that fungi can be spread via vector spread. In vector spread, the fungus is transmitted from one host to another by an intermediary. It is not clear how often vector spread occurs, but it is thought to be a relatively rare event. However, it is possible that vector spread plays a role in the transmission of some fungal infections.


Vehicular Spread: Food or Water Contamination


Fungi can be spread indirectly via vehicles such as food and drink. Vehicular spread may be a more common means of transmission than previously thought but it is still rarer than other types.


Preventing the Spread and Heading Off Fungal Infections


Fungal infections can cause a wide range of symptoms, from mild skin rashes to life-threatening illnesses. In order to prevent them, it is important to practice good hygiene and avoid contact with contaminated surfaces. It is also important to promptly treat any cuts or scrapes, as these can provide an entry point for fungal organisms. In some cases, these can be spread from person to person.

Fungal infections can be difficult to control once they take hold. If you do develop an infection, it is important to treat it quickly to prevent it from spreading. Fungal infections are often treated with antifungal creams or oral medications. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary. With prompt treatment, most fungal infections can be controlled before they cause serious damage.

Kimberly Hazel

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