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Fungal Infections

Fungal infections occur when fungi enter your lungs or grow inside your mouth, on your skin, or other body parts.

Many different fungal infections exist. Some are quite common, while others are very rare.

Anyone can get a fungal infection, but people with weakened immune systems have the highest risk.

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What Is a Fungal Infection?

Doctors define a fungal infection as any infection that forms from a fungus.

A fungus is a type of organism like bacteria or a plant, but fungi are in their own kingdom. Scientists have named about 150,000 species of fungus, and there are likely millions more that they've yet to discover.

Most fungi are harmless to humans. They include food items you know, like mushrooms and yeast, along with mildew, mold, and plant diseases called rusts.

But some fungi can cause disease in humans.

Most fungal infections affect your skin, hair, or nails. Others can affect your lungs, sinuses, or other parts of your body.

Some fungal diseases can cause severe illness and even death if not treated. About 7,200 people died from a fungal disease in 2021.

What are the types of fungal infections?

There are many kinds of fungal infections.

Some are mild and only require over-the-counter treatments. Others are more severe and need care from a doctor.

The more common fungal diseases include:

  • Fungal nail infections, which affect about 14% of all people.
  • Ringworm, including athlete's foot.
  • Vaginal yeast infections from Candida.
  • Yeast infections in the mouth, also from Candida, including thrush.

What causes fungal infections?

Fungal infections occur when a fungus that can cause disease comes in direct contact with certain parts of your body.

Sometimes, you breathe in fungal spores from the fungus, like tiny seeds in the air you can't see. Fungus can also enter your skin through a cut, burn, or other injuries.

In very rare cases, a fungal infection can occur during surgery if providers don't follow all safety practices.

What are fungal infection risk factors and complications?

Fungal infection risk factors

People with weakened immune systems have the greatest risk of fungal infections.

These include people:

  • Living with HIV and AIDS.
  • Receiving treatment for severe issues in the hospital.
  • Taking medicine that weakens the immune system, such as for an autoimmune disease.
  • Taking steroids.
  • Who have had an organ or stem cell transplant.
  • Who have cancer.

Risk factors for other fungal infections depend on the fungus that causes it.

For instance, people with a higher risk of getting a fungal nail infection are those with:

  • A nail injury or misshapen foot.
  • A weakened immune system.
  • Diabetes.
  • Fungal infections on other parts of the body.
  • Poor blood circulation, including people with narrowed arteries.

Risk factors for vaginal yeast infections include:

  • Having a weakened immune system.
  • Having diabetes.
  • Taking antibiotics.
  • Being pregnant.
  • Using birth control pills or other hormonal birth control.

Risk factors for mouth or throat yeast infections include:

  • Having cancer, diabetes, or HIV/AIDS.
  • Smoking.
  • Taking antibiotics or steroids, including steroid inhalers for asthma.
  • Taking medicines or having a health issue that causes a dry mouth.
  • Wearing dentures.

Complications of fungal infections

Some fungal infections will go away on their own, but most need treatment so they don't spread or get worse.

The most severe infections can cause organ damage or death if they're not treated.

How can I reduce my risks of fungal infections?

You can lower your risk of many fungal infections with good hygiene.

For instance, athletes in close contact sports should shower after practice and games. They should also keep their uniform and gear clean and not share it with other players.

To avoid a nail fungal infection, don't share nail clippers and keep fingernails and toenails short and clean. If you go to a nail salon, make sure it follows proper hygiene rules and has a state license.

You can reduce your risk of mouth or throat yeast infections by brushing your teeth and flossing often. If you use a steroid inhaler, rinse your mouth or brush your teeth after using it.

Other things you can do to lower your risk of a fungal infection:

  • Don't share towels, clothing, sheets, and other personal items with someone who has ringworm.
  • Change your underwear and socks daily.
  • Keep your hands and feet clean and dry.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after playing with pets.
  • Wear shoes in communal bathing areas, such as locker rooms and public showers.

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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Fungal Infections?

The symptoms of a fungal infection depend on what type it is.

For instance, symptoms from a fungal skin infection will differ from those from a lung infection.

Nail fungal infection symptoms

Common signs of a nail fungal infection include cracked, discolored, frail, or thick nails. Sometimes, the nail will pull away from the skin.

Ringworm infection symptoms

Ringworm infections often have a ring-shaped rash (in the groin area, it looks like red spots).

The skin tends to be itchy, red, scaly, or cracked and may peel on the feet or in between toes.

Ringworm on the scalp or in a beard can cause hair loss.

Vaginal yeast infection symptoms

If you have this type of fungal infection, you may feel itchy or sore in the vaginal area.

You may also have unusual discharge and pain during sex or when you pee.

Mouth or throat yeast infection symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Cracking or redness in the corners of your mouth.
  • A lost sense of taste.
  • A cotton-like feeling in your mouth.
  • Pain when you eat or swallow.
  • Redness or soreness in your mouth or throat.
  • White patches on your tongue, the roof of your mouth, throat, or inside your cheeks.

Symptoms of more severe fungal infections can look the same as symptoms of many other bacterial or viral infections.

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How Do You Diagnose Fungal Infections?

How the doctor arrives at a diagnosis depends on the type of fungal infection you have.

For instance, they may only need to look at the skin or nails to see the issue. For a vaginal yeast infection, they often swab a sample to look at under a microscope.

But other fungal infections, such as those in the lungs, require more details and testing.

Your doctor may ask if you've recently traveled, do a biopsy, or take samples.

They may also order:

  • Blood, sputum, or urine tests.
  • X-rays.
  • CT scans.
  • Ultrasounds.
  • Biopsies.

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How Do You Treatment Fungal Infections?

Some fungal infections go away on their own.

But most require an anti-fungal medicine — such as a cream for the skin, an oral drug, or even an IV.

Standard medicines to treat fungal infections

  • Vaginal yeast infection treatments. Your doctor will prescribe fluconazole. They might also give you other drugs, such as boric acid, nystatin, or flucytosine.
  • Oral yeast infection treatments. Your doctor may prescribe clotrimazole, fluconazole, miconazole, or nystatin.
  • Ringworm of the skin treatments. You can take over-the-counter medicines like clotrimazole, ketoconazole, miconazole, and terbinafine.
  • Ringworm on the scalp treatments. Doctors prescribe fluconazole, griseofulvin, itraconazole, and terbinafine.

If your symptoms don't go away with the first treatment, your doctor will prescribe a different anti-fungal medicine.

Some severe infections may require:

  • Oxygen.
  • Help with breathing.
  • Other kinds of medicines, including IV antifungals.

In rare cases, fungal infections require surgery.

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