It’s time for a pop quiz!
What do mushrooms, mildew, and mold have in common? The answer is: each one is a type of fungus.
Fungi (more than one fungus) are primitive organisms that abound everywhere on our planet, in the air, in the ground, and in water. They can live in plants and animals, as you well know if you’ve ever had athlete’s foot. Some fungi are found naturally inside the human body.
About half of the fungi in the world are harmful. The other half are helpers.
Some fungi release tiny spores into the air where they travel until finding a suitable host. This is how these organisms reproduce. If you inhale airborne fungal spores, you might come down with a fungal infection. Similarly, if the spores land on your skin, your skin could get infected.
People with weakened immune systems and those who take antibiotics -which kill all organisms, both the helpers and the hurters – are more likely to get fungal infections. This is because fungal infections strike whenever an intrusive fungus attacks some part of your body and overwhelms your immune system.
Anyone who has battled a fungal disease knows how hard it can be to get rid of it because they are extremely hardy and can rise again to cause another infection. Topical creams and ointments applied directly to the skin are generally used for skin conditions. In extreme cases, an oral medication may be prescribed by a doctor.
I myself picked up a skin fungus while traveling in Europe during my 20s and have never managed to kill it off entirely. I didn’t even know I had it until a roommate pointed it out one day and exclaimed, “What is that all over your back?!?” Looking in a mirror, I had no idea.
This particular fungal infection looks like little white dots all over my tanned skin and typically shows up when I least expect it. Contrasting pigmentation caused by this microbe can also appear on the chest, neck, and upper arms.
The doctor who diagnosed my skin condition told me that these sneaky tinea versicolor fungi lie in wait for just the right conditions: hot sweat (heat and humidity). In some cases, they are accompanied by some mild itching and scaly skin.
Young people are at greater risk for contracting tinea versicolor because hormonal changes and oily skin (hallmarks of the teenage years) are triggers.
Once you’ve beaten back a first outbreak of tinea versicolor, there are medicines that help prevent it from returning, especially during warm, humid weather. Among them are:
- Selenium sulfide (Selsun) 2.5 percent lotion or shampoo
- Ketoconazole (Ketoconazole, Nizoral, others) cream, gel or shampoo
- Itraconazole (Onmel, Sporanox) tablets, capsules or oral solution
- Fluconazole (Diflucan) tablets or oral solution
The good news is that fungal skin infections such as athlete’s foot, ringworm, vaginal yeast infections, and jock itch are almost never contagious and can be treated.
Ringworm has nothing to do with real worms. It looks like a raised, red, circular patch on the skin or scalp and itches like the dickens. Avoid infection by practicing good hygiene: keep your skin clean and dry. Powder could help absorb body moisture. Don’t share personal items (combs, towels or clothes) with someone known to have this fungal disease.
Athlete’s foot is so named because it spreads in locker rooms with wet floors and from towels and footwear that have been contaminated. Skin between the toes burns, itches, dries out, cracks, and peels. Beat this type of ringworm back with a topical treatment and then go for prevention by wearing shower shoes such as flip-flops in shared facilities. Wash your feet every day and dry them thoroughly before putting on clean socks.
Jock itch is still another type of ringworm. It looks like a red rash around the groin area in both men and women (and non-jocks as well). As its name suggests, this skin fungus makes you want to scratch areas of your body that seldom, if ever, see the light of day – at least, while in public. Treatment is similar to that for athlete’s foot: apply a topical to fight back the infection, then prevent recurrences by keeping your private parts clean and dry. Wear clean dry clothes (especially underwear) and allow air to circulate by shunning tight-fitting attire.
Nail fungus infects fingernails and toenails which become thick, brittle, and discolored. Once again, to keep this micro-organism away, cleanse and dry both your hands and feet daily, wear shower shoes in public facilities, change into dry socks as often as needed, and select shoes with wide toes that don’t compress your digits. Need I tell you not to use other people’s nail clippers?
Because skin fungi thrive in hot, humid environments, remove sweaty workout togs as soon as possible and launder them after each use. Don clean clothing before you hit the treadmill. And don’t forget your shoes: let damp footwear air-dry and remember to wash them on a regular basis. At home, bare your feet so they can air out.
At the gym, sit on the dry part of a wet bench and use your own towel. Bringing your own personal workout mat is also a good idea. Dry gym equipment before and after use.
When home remedies fail, consult a healthcare professional if your skin doesn’t get better, if the fungal infection keeps coming back or if the discoloration appears in big patches.