‘Common but yucky’ is probably the best thing you can say about fungal infections. Fungi are everywhere – on plants, in soil, on our skin and on every surface. They include mold, yeast and other microscopic spores. Although there are well over 1.5 million types, only about 300 types of fungi can make us sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Mild fungal infections are common. They can look like a rash and usually go away on their own. However, a serious fungal infection, such as in the lungs or bloodstream, is rare but much more serious, even life threatening. They require immediate medical attention.
Fungal infection symptoms can be similar to many conditions or illnesses. This makes it often hard to get an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment. Take this true-false quiz to see how much you know. The more you know, the healthier you’ll be.
- Sick people are more likely to get a fungal infection.
True. If you have a weak immune system – such as when you’re getting radiation treatments or chemotherapy for cancer, have HIV/AIDS, had an organ transplant or have a lung infection – you are at a higher risk of infections. The infection can target almost any part of the body
- You’re safe from fungal infections in a hospital because it is clean.
False. The Candida fungus causes most bloodstream infections in hospital patients. Normally it lives on skin and in our digestive tract, causing no problems. But if it gets in the bloodstream, an infection is likely. Bloodstream infections result in an additional three days to two weeks in hospital and cost an additional $6,000 – $29,000. The Candida fungus can also causes thrush (in mouth or throat) and yeast infections (in the genital area).
- Antibiotics will clear up most fungal infections.
False. Antibiotics don’t work for fungal infections. However, because they can have the same symptoms as bacterial infections, misdiagnosis is common and patients are often prescribed antibiotics. If you don’t start getting better after taking antibiotics, ask for testing for fungal infection. This precaution could reduce unnecessary and potentially dangerous antibiotic use early in the disease. Antifungal medications can then be prescribed to attack the fungus.
- Some medications can increase your risk for fungal infections.
True. Steroids (corticosteroids) and tumor necrosis factor inhibitors (TNF) are two types of drugs that can put you at higher risk of fungal infection. Steroids are used to treat arthritis, asthma, allergic reactions, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease and others. The longer the use of steroids the more likely a fungal infection is. TNF inhibitors are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and other autoimmune diseases. Women who have recently taken antibiotics are at higher risk of vaginal yeast infections. Men are also more susceptible to genital candidiasis after a round of antibiotics.
- Disinfecting all surfaces in your home will prevent fungal infections.
False. Fungi are everywhere and you can’t get rid of them all. You don’t need to get rid of them because they naturally live in and on our bodies and rarely cause problems. However, if someone in your household is seriously ill or has a weakened immune system, it is important to keep their area as clean as possible. They are at a much higher risk of getting a fungal infection.
To help prevent fungal infections, especially if you have a weakened immune system, stay away from areas with a lot of bird or bat droppings like chicken coops and caves. Avoid dusty areas such as construction or excavation sites and stay inside during dust storms. Wear gloves when handling materials like soil, moss or manure. Wear shoes, long pants and long sleeves when you are outdoors gardening or in a wooded area.
- Good personal hygiene can help prevent ringworm, one of the most common fungal infections.
True. Using public locker rooms and showers, having close contact with animals, and excessive sweating during sports or other hot-summer activities can increase your chance of getting ringworm. Symptoms include itchy skin, ring-shaped rash, hair loss and red, scaly, cracked skin. Ringworm is also called “athlete’s foot” and “jock itch,” and can occur on the scalp, or in beards and mustaches. To help prevent ringworm:
- Keep skin clean and dry
- Don’t walk barefoot in public showers or locker rooms
- Don’t share clothing, towels, sheets or any personal item, including sports equipment
- Wash hands with soap and running water after playing with pets or any contact with animals, such as a petting zoo
- Athletes should shower immediately after games or practices, and keep gear and uniforms clean
- Keep fingernails and toenails short and clean
- Change socks and underwear at least once a day
- If your pet has ringworm (a circular rash or hairless patch on its skin) be sure a veterinarian starts treatment and all animals in the household are checked for ringworm; wear gloves and long sleeves when handling the pet; vacuum areas where the infected pet visits to remove infected fur and skin flakes; disinfect pet’s bedding and surface areas it has visited
- Some fungi have become resistant to antifungal medications.
True. Antifungal resistance, like antibiotic resistance, is becoming a problem, especially for invasive infections caused by Candida. It is increasingly resistant to first- and second-line antifungals. The CDC says improper use of antifungals, such as using too low a dose or not treating long enough, may be causing the resistance.
- Toenail fungus can be very painful.
False. Fungal infections of the fingernails or toenails produce discolored, thick and usually fragile or cracked nails but it is seldom painful, unless left untreated and the infection becomes severe. Many types of fungi can cause a nail infection. Toenail infections are more common. Small cracks in the skin or nail can allow fungi to enter and cause an infection. Nail infections are more common in older people, and those with diabetes, a weakened immune system or blood circulation problems. Having a nail injury or athlete’s foot also increase your risk for nail fungus. Never share nail clippers with others and, if visiting a nail salon, insist on sterilized instruments or bring your own.
- Symptoms of common fungal infections only include fever, rash and itchy skin.
True and False. There are so many types of fungal infections and they can target different parts of the body. It is not possible to generalize about symptoms. It depends on the body part that is affected, the seriousness of the infection and whether the patient has an already weakened immune system. For example, a common fungal skin infection may include a rash and itchy skin. However, when fungi enter the bloodstream and cause meningitis (swelling on the brain or spinal cord) the symptoms start with fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, light sensitivity and confusion. It can be fatal without treatment. A fungal infection involving the lungs can produce symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing, cough and fatigue.
For more information about specific types of fungal infections, visit the CDC website.