Fungi are tiny organisms that normally live on the skin, but, in some cases, they can overgrow and trigger a skin infection. In fact, fungal infections are one of the most common causes of skin disease. Fungi can infect a variety of different parts of the body from the scalp to the feet. One of the most common fungal infections is athlete’s foot. Jock itch, an infection that affects the groin and buttock area, is also of fungal origin. Fungi can also affect other areas of the body. One example is ringworm. Another common fungal skin condition called tinea versicolor is common on the neck, trunk and upper body during the hot, summer months.
With athlete’s foot, you generally see red, flaky skin that peels easily on the feet, although in some cases, you can see a rash or blisters. People with jock itch usually have a red, scaly rash that’s intensely itchy. Skin infected with ringworm typically has ring-shaped, red, scaly patches, while tinea versicolor manifests with pale, pink patches on the neck or trunk that don’t tan when exposed to the sun. The patches are usually more visible when the rest of the skin is tanned. Unlike the other forms of fungal infection, tinea versicolor is usually not itchy. If the diagnosis is in question, a doctor can take a skin scraping and do a quick test called a KOH prep to verify that it’s fungal in nature.
What Causes It?
Some fungi normally live on the surface of the skin without causing infection or other skin problems. They are able to overgrow and set up an infection under conditions where the immune system is weakened or a change in the pH of the skin occurs. Skin fungal infections are more common in people with medical conditions that alter the immune system and in those taking certain medications such as corticosteroids. People who are malnourished or obese are also more prone towards infections with skin fungi.
People who work in hot environments, sweat a lot and wear tight clothing are more prone to skin fungal infections. Damp conditions create the perfect environment for these tiny organisms to overgrow and cause an infection. Athletes are more prone to athlete’s foot when they work out in tight shoes that don’t allow sweat to escape. The fungi can also survive on moist gym floors and in shower areas, which is where many people get infected. Sweating in tight pants also increases the risk of jock itch.
For athlete’s foot, topical gels, lotions, powders or sprays that contain miconazole, terbinafine, clotrimazole or tolnaftate are effective for treating mild cases. Apply it once or twice a day, and keep feet dry between applications. Vinegar soaks may also help by altering the pH of the surface of the skin. If the infection hasn’t cleared after three to four weeks, a doctor may recommend prescription medications, either topical or in pill form. It’s best to stick with the topical treatments when possible since oral anti-fungal medications have side effects.
The treatment for jock itch and ringworm is similar to that of athlete’s foot. Topical medications that contain miconazole, terbinafine or clotrimazole available without prescription work well for most people. As with athlete’s foot, stubborn cases may require prescription medications. It’s important to keep the area free of moisture, and wear loose-fitting clothing and cotton underwear that allows the affected areas to breathe.
The majority of cases of tinea versicolor can be treated with topical, non-prescription medications including ketoconazole cream, ciclopirox cream, gel or lotion or selenium sulfide 2.5% lotions. As with other fungal infections, prescription medications may be needed if the infection doesn’t clear after several weeks. It’s important to keep the areas clean, dry and free of sweat. Tinea versicolor usually clears with treatment, although it has a tendency to come back when skin is exposed to heat and humidity.
The Bottom Line?
Fungal skin infections are one of the most common types of skin disease, but most can be successfully treated with topical medications that are available without prescription.