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Fungal infection

Fungal infections are common, and fungi are mostly found to grow in the skin, hair or nails. Research shows that nearly a billion people are estimated to have either skin, nail or hair fungal infections. The specific cause of fungal infection varies but is often the result of reduced resistance. Most fungi are harmless and even a necessary part of life. Sometimes, fungi can colonize the body and cause symptoms. In this case, we consider it a fungal infection. Fungal infections are easy to treat and there are different medications which can help.

Medically reviewed by G.L. Merkens on December 17, 2018

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    What is a fungal infection?

    Fungi and yeast are present on everyone's skin and mucous membranes alongside normal skin bacteria. They play a role in the immune system. Fungal infections can affect everyone. Whenever fungi that normally either are or aren’t present on the body multiply, they can cause a fungal infection.

    These fungal infections mostly occur on the skin, hair or nails. Our skin normally protects us against fungal infection, but sometimes this protection fails. Consequently, fungi can penetrate the skin and affect the organs causing a body-wide systemic infection, which can be life-threatening.

    Fungal nail infection

    Fungal nail infection, also referred to as ‘onychomycosis’, occurs when a finger or toenail becomes infected. Although not life-threatening, onychomycosis constitutes to an important public health problem because of its high prevalence. In the United States alone, 10% of the population is affected, according to research, fungi are present on everyone's skin and under the edges of your nails. It’s only when fungus penetrates the nail that an infection develops and causes a fungal nail to develop.
     

    What are symptoms of fungal infections?

    Fungal infections of the skin can be recognised by various symptoms. Red spots can appear on the skin with flaking skin at the edges. Sometimes these are ring-shaped spots which grow larger, a form of skin fungus called 'ringworm'. Depending on the type of fungal infection, other symptoms such as a burning sensation, small pimples and blisters can develop.

    Occasionally, a fungal infection on one part of the body can cause an allergic skin eruption on another part of the body, that was initially not affected by the fungus. This hypersensitive reaction to a fungal infection means the site of the infection is located elsewhere. The allergic response may cause shedding of skin, accompanied by blisters and is mainly found on the side of the fingers or in the palms of the hands.

    Symptoms of fungal nails
    A fungal nail infection starts at the nail edge, which then becomes a discoloured, white-yellow, green or brown. The colour indicates that the infection has reached a particular stage. As long as nothing else happens, the nail will become thick and crumbly and may sometimes partially or even completely fall off.

    What are causes of fungal infections?

    Skin usually resists fungal infections. But when an infection does occur, it may be because:

    • The skin has become irritated or damaged
    • The skin is frequently washed with soap (using too much soap removes the skin’s fatty acids)
    • The skin has been softened by heat and moisture (always dry the skin well after showering)

    However, elderly people and those with a weakened immune system have a greater chance of attracting fungal infections. This lower resistance can be due to age, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, chronic illness or the use of antibiotics. Thereby, also being overweight can be a risk factor, since these patients have more skin folds and are therefore more susceptible to fungal infection.

    How is a fungal infection diagnosed?

    A diagnosis will be made based on a combination of factors. A diagnosis can be established from the clinical evidence, what the patient reports, and various external factors. If there is redness, itching and scaling then a fungal infection can be assumed. Furthermore, fungal nails will have their own 'external' characteristics: for example, a brittle yellow/white or green nail indicates a fungal infection.

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