How do you Catch Fungal Infections?
What are fungi and fungal infections?
Fungi are one of the most fascinating of life forms on the planet. They are also one of the most pervasive and can be lethal. However, before we explain why and how fungi develops into an infection, let's look first at what they actually are.
Fungi are neither a plant nor animal but are in a category of their own. They are not a plant since they cannot use chlorophyll and are unable to make their own food. They survive by absorbing the nutrients that they find in their surroundings. Although fungi can cause serious illness and infections, they also have a crucial role to play in the ecosystem of the planet. Fungi have an essential role in breaking down dead matter so nutrients can be returned to the soil. There are also fungi who can cure infection - penicillin the anti-biotic is a fungus. Fungi are also important aspects in many of the food and drink industries.
As far as infection goes there are three categories:
- Superficial - examples are - athlete's foot, oral thrush, nail infection
- Systemic - this is a much more serious infection as the fungus has entered the blood stream.
- Opportunistic - these usually occur when the fungi are able to get a hold due to the person having a suppressed immune system. These infections can be superficial or systemic.
We'll now go on to look at how fungi change from being just another part of the environment into an invading organism.
Some of the most common fungi
Fungi are all around us and in us!
Fungal infections arise from one of the four major micro-organisms that can cause disease. These are:
One of the main reasons that we catch fungal infections is because of the number of places they survive. Fungi can be found:
- In the air
- In water
- In soil
- On plants
- In our houses and buildings
- We also have fungi on and within our body
In addition, crowded public places such as shower rooms at a gymnasium or public swimming baths, where we may go around bare foot, is an excellent environment for fungi to be present.
What do fungi look like?
Some fungi are unicellular like yeasts and others take on a branching form. There are also fungi however, depending on their environment, will change from one form to the other. These are called 'dimorphic' .
The fungi that are in the air can cause infection when they either land on our skin or are inhaled. The risk of catching a fungal infection is greater if:
- The immune system is not functioning properly due to some treatments such as chemotherapy or due to illness such as HIV/AIDS. In addition, people who have had organ transplant are also at risk, due to the immune system being deliberately suppressed to avoid rejection.
- People who have required numerous surgical operations within a short period of time. The more often the body is exposed to outside air/the environment, the more chance fungi have of entering. This is what happened to my own Mother, when she was very ill and certainly contributed to her rapid deterioration in health.
- Anti-biotics. People who are on anti-biotics are more prone to fungal infections. This is because anti-biotics not only kill off harmful organisms, but helpful ones as well. It is the helpful organisms that keep bad organisms such as infectious fungi at bay. Once anti-biotic therapy is finished, the number of good organisms soon recover.
- Medications such as chemotherapy, corticosteroids and as previously mentioned, organ transplant patients are particularly at risk. Other less harmful medications such as inhalers for asthma can also cause frequent oral fungal infections such as thrush.
- Severe burns causes the protective barrier of the skin to be destroyed. This not only lets in harmful bacteria but fungi as well.
- Medical conditions that put people at risk of fungal infections are - kidney failure, lymphomas, diabetes, leukaemia and lung disorders such as emphysema.
Fungal infections can be caused by either one or more species and range from localised areas on the skin to deep systemic and potentially lethal invasion of the body. Fungal infections occur when a person is exposed to them and/or the fungi are given the proper environment for them to grow - yeast infections in particular thrive in warm, moist areas.
We also have fungi that are present on and in our bodies. The species candida can be found on skin as well as in the intestine. For the majority of the time this fungus is harmless, but on occasion, when conditions are right, it will cause infections in some areas of the body such as:
- localised infection of skin
- localised infection of nails
- Infection of the vagina
- Mouth infections
- Sinus infection
However, although there are about 50,000 species of fungi only about 200 have associations with disease in humans. Of these about 25 fungi species cause the more common infections. Some fungal infections can be transferred from person to person while others can't be transmitted in this way. Most fungal infections only occur in people whose immune system is for some reason not at full strength. However, infections can also be introduced accidentally through injections or other invasive procedures of the body.
There are a number of medications - anti-fungals - that can be used against fungi. However, the design and structure of fungi make them very difficult to kill. It can sometimes take a few months before a person is clear. There are a few different ways that anti-fungal medication is prepared - creams, gels and tablets/capsules are some of the most common. However, even anti-fungal medication is sometimes not enough against the dangerous fungal infections.
The serious and deadly fungal infections
The most severe fungal infections have the ability to harm healthy people as well as those who are already having to cope with another medical issue. Dangerous fungi are found in all parts of the world. Below are a few that are known to science:
- histoplasmosis - a disease caused by the fungus - Histoplasma capsulatum. Usually found in areas where there is a significant amount of bird and bat droppings. The spores are inhaled and can lead to infection similar in symptoms to pneumonia. Not everyone who inhales the spores will develop the illness. However, the condition does have the potential to become very serious if not treated.
- blastomycosis - caused by the fungus - Blastomyces dermatitidis.This fungus lives in moist soil where you have decomposing leaves and wood. Not normally fatal when the spores are inhaled but can be serious if not treated. The symptoms are like the flu.
- coccidioidmycosis - also known as 'valley fever' and develops into a form of pneumonia. The fungus is normally found in low rainfall areas. It's endemic to places such as the southwestern USA, Mexico, central and South America. Normally not a serious condition but in some people who have other medical conditions it can develop into a severe infection. The symptoms are similar to those of pneumonia
- paracoccidioidomycoses - caused by the fungus - Paracoccidioides brasiliensis.
It is mainly found in areas where there are large coffee plantations in Central America. One of the most interesting aspects of this fungal infection is that men are much more likely to contract the infection than women. Scientists believe that oestrogen for some reason protects most women from the fungus.
- Cryptococcus - refers to the yeast state of this potentially lethal fungus. However, it's only the 'Cryptococcus neoformans' and 'Cryptococcus gattii' strains that is usually dangerous to humans. This particular fungus causes a serious form of meningitis particularly in people with HIV/AIDS. Neoformans can be found in soil throughout the world - normally where there is a lot of bird droppings. Infection can start when the spores are inhaled. People with suppressed immune systems are most at risk but healthy people can also catch this infection.
These are only a few of the most acute fungal infections, there are many more and research carries on daily to find out more about these organisms. However, is there any general rules we can follow to keep us safe?
Superficial fungal infections
1. Tinea capitis
*Ringworm of the scalp
2. Tinea corporis
*Ringworm of the body
3. Tinea pedis
*Ringworm of the feet or athlete's foot
4. Tinea unguium
Fungal infection of nails
Toe nails or finger nails
5. Tinea Cruris
*Ringworm in the groin or 'jock itch'
Mouth, skin, vagina.
Can you prevent fungal infections?
Fungi are everywhere in the environment including your own home and on your body. It wouldn't be possible to protect against all fungi, especially the air-borne spores. However, everyday people breath in spores, have spores landing on their skin and so on with no infection ever appearing. That's not to say that it can't happen and for superficial fungal infections there are a number of things we can do to cut down the risks. This is in your best interests, since fungi are very difficult to remove and embarrassing. Infections range from uncomfortable to painful. If anyone has ever experienced the burning, severe itching of thrush, then take it from me, you won't want to repeat this.
Basically the best way to stop fungal infections is to maintain good, general hygiene:
- Keep your skin and scalp not only clean but as dry as possible. Fungi like nothing better than moist, warm areas.
- Good hand hygiene is essential for the prevention of all infections and fungi are no exception. In particular wash your hands after coming into contact with soil.
- It might be hard to avoid for some people, but it's best to evade sharing personal items with other people such as - brushes, combs, hats etc.
- When in public areas such as swimming pools, gym etc., ensure that you remove damp clothing and footwear as soon as possible. Don't walk around public areas in bare feet, use flip-flops/shower shoes. Clean your skin and make sure that it's dried thoroughly.
- If you have feet that tend to sweat a lot, then be particularly cautious about your foot hygiene.
- When not in public areas, try to walk bare foot as often as you can to allow air to dry out your skin thoroughly. Keep your toenails short. If you feel it would be beneficial, then use a medicated talcum powder to make sure your feet remain dry for as long as possible.
- On the whole, loose cotton - that keeps skin cooler and dryer - is one of the best materials to protect against fungal infections. This includes underwear and socks - particularly if you are prone to infections such as athlete's foot and thrush. In addition to changing underwear and socks as often as you have to, there are also medicated talc and lotions you can apply to help reduce the risk further.
- You should avoid materials such as nylon that can make you sweat.
- A good diet and exercise will always help to prevent and fight off any kind of infection including fungus. Balanced nutrition and exercise help to boost the immune system.
These are just some of the basic tips that can help to prevent fungal infections. However, we shouldn't become complacent. According to the UK Health Protection Agency:
"Invasive fungal infections are increasing in frequency in all western countries as a result of modern medicine and increased survival from otherwise lethal diseases..."
As we can see fungal infections have not decreased with modern medicine but in fact the numbers of people who have these types of infection are on the increase.
Like the bacteria that are becoming immune to modern medicines, fungi also seem to be thriving in our modern 21st century world. In addition, like bacteria, this form of life has been around for millions of years and likely to remain for another few million yet. Therefore, not only should we give respect to this ancient life form but also appreciate it's potential for harm.
© 2012 Helen Murphy Howell