Fungus can be an unwelcome guest on your body. How does it get there and what can you do to prevent it?
When we think of fungus, we often picture mushrooms, toadstools or that horrid green mould that grows on old bread.
But it might surprise you to discover that fungus is also a germ that lives on us all.
This sounds revolting but most of the time the germ is harmless and doesn't cause any problems.
Having said that, it can sometimes cause something called a fungal infection. Again, this sounds pretty disgusting, but actually it’s very easy to prevent and to treat.
Signs and symptoms
The symptoms and appearances of a fungal infection depend on the type of fungus causing it and the part of the body affected.
Some types cause scaly rashes, others flaky skin. Some cause itching, other red patches. Most will feel uncomfortable enough for you to realise there is something wrong.
Fungal infections usually affect the skin because they live off keratin, a protein that makes up skin, hair and nails. If think you might have a fungal infection, you should visit your doctor for advice.
Rupert Mason, a GP and clinical assistant in dermatology, said: "Fungal infections are nothing to be embarrassed about. They are very common and you would have to be pretty lucky to go through life without at least one minor episode such as a skin infection.
“The great thing is that there are plenty of simple, effective treatments to get rid of them.
“So, if you think you have a problem check it out with your doctor. It’s easily dealt with.”
Types of fungal infections
There are two main types of fungal infections – dermatophyte infections and yeast infections.
These are basic fungal skin infections caused by dermatophytes – a type of fungi. They are common, and affect between ten and 20 per cent of people at some point in their life.
Athlete's foot – a very common infection caused by a combination of fungi and bacteria. It causes itching and moist skin patches in the spaces between the toes. This infection is often picked up from other people – usually when you walk around barefoot in a public place like a swimming pool.
Onychomycosis – a posh word for a nail infection. The most common one of these is called tinea unguium (ringworm of the nails) and makes the nails a funny shape, thickened and crumbly. Toenail infections are often linked with athlete's foot but fingernails can be affected too.
Jock itch – also called ringworm of the groin. It mostly occurs in sportspeople who spend a lot of time in tight shorts and sweat a lot. It causes an itchy, red rash in the groin and surrounding area. It mostly affects men but can affect women too.
Ringworm on the body – affects the body in areas like the abdomen or on limbs, causing red patches. They are scaly at the edge with clear skin at the centre. The patches spread out from the centre. It can be caught from pets like cats and dogs.
Ringworm of the scalp – usually affects young children and can cause hair loss with inflammation in the affected area. It is usually spread from person to person.
Yeast infections include:
Intertrigo – affects the creases in the skin, like the armpits, groin and under your breasts or folds of fat. It can cause itching and discomfort in these warm, moist areas.
Pityriasis versicolor – causes dark patches on pale or untanned skin and light patches on tanned or darker skin. Teenagers and young adults are most often affected.
Thrush – caused by a fungus called candida albicans which is present in most people. Thrush can affect the mouth and tongue, the vagina, and moist, folded skin. It often looks like small white patches, which leave a red mark when rubbed off.
Scalp infections – these cause flaky, itchy skin on your head which can give you dandruff.
Why do you get a fungal infection?
There a few things which can make a fungal infection more likely. Antibiotics can disrupt fungus in your system causing yeast infections, for example. Oral steroids can also be to blame.
You are also more at risk if you are obese, have diabetes, are African-Caribbean or have an illness which makes you have a low immune system.
You can also develop skin fungal infections when your skin is not dried properly, if you are wearing a fabric which does not allow your skin to breathe or if your skin gets cut or grazed.
Lots of fungal infections are catching – such as athlete's foot – and some, like ringworm, can be caught from animals.
How it feels
Giselle, 12, caught the fungal infection athlete's foot after a trip to the swimming pool. She said she had not noticed until a few days later when her toes began to itch.
"It was really irritating," she said. "It felt extremely itchy between my toes, especially next to the little toe. I couldn't stop rubbing them together and scratching.
“Eventually I made one of them bleed and noticed little cracks in the skin. My mum took me to the doctor and he said it was a fungal infection.
"It made me feel really disgusting that I had a problem with fungus. It sounded like mould was growing between my toes.
“My doctor said loads of people get it though and I was given this special powder to put on my feet which made the itching stop."
Beat the itch
If you think you have a fungal infection, you should visit your doctor. If they think you have a skin infection they might take a scraping from the affected area or a fragment of nail or piece of hair. This will be sent off to a laboratory for testing.
Most fungal skin infections can be cured with antifungal treatments which are creams, lotions or powders applied directly to the skin in the infected area.
In some cases, tablets may be required. You might be given antifungal shampoo for scalp infections.
Yeast infections are also treated with creams. A person with vaginal thrush might also be offered something called a pessary which is inserted into the vagina and allowed to dissolve.
If you recognise your symptoms from a previous infection, you will probably be able to visit your pharmacist instead of your doctor to get an over-the-counter treatment.
You can help prevent a fungal infection by following a few simple rules:
- Dry your skin carefully after bathing. Moist areas cause fungus to breed.
- Change your socks and tights daily to avoid athlete's foot and try to wear different shoes every two to three days.
- Wear loose fitting clothes and underwear. One hundred per cent cotton clothing is usually best.
- Don't share towels, hair brushes, and combs, which could contain skin fragments that harbour fungal colonies.
- Sports people should choose synthetic fibres that help release sweat away from the body, helping to keep the skin dry.
Fungus the bogeyman
Don't be embarrassed if you do get a fungal infection. It certainly doesn't mean you are a dirty person.
These things can be cleared up really quickly and nobody – except perhaps your doctor – needs to know you even had the problem to start with.