For many, the sight of -- or mere idea of -- a fungus living in one's skin is repulsive.
But if you can distance yourself from the disgust, fungus is actually pretty fascinating. Once thought to be plants (mushrooms are still sorted among vegetables in the supermarket, after all), fungi's distinct cell walls and lack of chlorophyll distinguish them today as their own kingdom consisting of at least 80,000 species.
Most types of skin fungus are molds known as dermatophytes. Although there are many species of fungi that fall under the category of dermatophytes, a single species can affect different parts of the body and cause different skin reactions.
Here are five quick facts on the basics of skin fungus.
Skin infections are very common. For instance, it's estimated that at any one time in the United States, at least one in five people have athlete's foot, a particular type of skin fungus [source: Wallace].
Skin fungi affect both genders, too. Tinea corporis, a skin fungus that forms on the body's trunk or extremities, prefers women. Athlete's foot tends to strike men more often. Jock itch, probably the most uncomfortable skin fungus, typically affects males, but women aren't immune.
Dermatophytes like to set up camp on skin because they feast on keratin, a strong, fibrous protein that makes up much of your skin (as well as nails and hair, where fungus can also thrive).
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that, besides keratin, fungus loves two things: warmth and moisture. This is why it so often holes up on sweaty feet. Tinea cruris (jock itch) likes to hang out around the groin, anus and inner thighs -- all good places to reside if you like warm, moist places. Candidiasis can be found in your armpits, under breasts and between toes, among other places.
Skin fungus is contagious and can spread most commonly among people, but you can also get it from animals, clothes and fabrics (and even soil). A cat or a towel, for example, could both give you tinea corporis, also known as ringworm of the body.
The most common form of skin fungus, athlete's foot, spreads quickly in public locker rooms and swimming pools.
Appearance-wise, skin fungi can look very different. Athlete's foot, for example, could cause scales or fissures to form in between toes. Or, it can also affect other areas of the foot, causing blisters and other kinds of skin lesions on the heels, soles or along the sides.
Tinea versicolor is particularly marked by a discoloration of the skin. These patches can make the skin either lighter or darker, and they can appear white, brown, tan or pink. Jock itch, however, is characterized by a rash developing around the groin, anus and inner thighs. The center of the rash can get reddish-brown, while the edges develop scales or bumps. Candida yeast infections often result in reddish rashes with postural bumps and lesions.
Typical treatments for skin fungus include topical creams, usually with one of two types of anti-fungal ingredients: allylamines or azoles. Allylamines will work faster, but are typically more expensive than azoles [source: Mayo Clinic].
Some skin fungus creams and ointments are over-the-counter, but if that doesn't do the trick, see a doctor for something prescription-strength. Pills are also an option for some types of infection. A medication for tinea versicolor, for example, may contain ketoconazole, itraconazole or fluconazole.
If the basics of skin fungus aren't enough to satisfy your curiosity, try the links on the next page.
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- Alexander, Margaret F. et al. "Nursing Practice: Hospital and Home: The Adult." Elsevier HealthServices. 2006. (May 13, 2010). http://books.google.com/books?id=3Yz1QlhFEi4C
- Dhar, A. Damian, MD. "Candidiasis." The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library. Last updated August 2008. (May 13, 2010). http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec18/ch212/ch212b.html
- Dhar, A. Damian, MD. "Dematophytoses." The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library. Last updated August 2008. (May 13, 2010). http://www.merck.com/mmpe/sec10/ch120/ch120c.html
- Dockery, Gary L.., Mary Elizabeth Crawford. "Color Atlas of Foot and Ankle Dermatology." Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 1999. (May 13, 2010). http://books.google.com/books?id=wQkML9WQfXsC
- Mayo Clinic. "Athlete's foot." Nov. 22, 2008 (May 13, 2010) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/athletes-foot/DS00317/METHOD=print&DSECTION=all
- Mayo Clinic. "Jock Itch." Nov. 15, 2008. (May 13, 2010) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/jock-itch/DS00490/METHOD=print
- Mayo Clinic. "Tinea versicolor." Feb 23, 2010. (May 13, 2010) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/tinea-versicolor/DS00635/METHOD=print&DSECTION=all
- Wallace, Robert B., and Neal Kohatsu "Public Health & Preventative Medicine." McGraw-Hill Professional. 2008. (May 13, 2010) http://books.google.com/books?id=5ACWr8YcB2AC
- WebMD. "Jock Itch." WebMD. Last updated March 24, 2009. (May 13, 2010) http://men.webmd.com/tc/jock-itch-topic-overview
- WebMD. "Tinea Versicolor." WebMD. Last updated Nov. 9, 2009. (May 13, 2010) http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/tinea-versicolor-topic-overview