What do you think of when you hear the word fungus? Do you think of mushrooms? A mushroom is one type of fungus, but fungus also refers to a type of germ that lives on all of us.
This germ is harmless most of the time, but sometimes it can cause a problem called a fungal infection (say: FUN-gul in-FEK-shun). It sounds gross, but don’t worry or feel embarrassed. A lot of people get fungal infections, but they’re usually easy to treat because a fungus rarely spreads below the skin.
If you get one of these infections, before you know it, you’ll be saying bye-bye to fungi (say: FUN-guy).
What Is a Fungal Infection?
Fungi, the word for more than one fungus, can be found on different parts of the body. Here are some common types of fungal infections:
Tinea (say: TIH-nee-uh) is a type of fungal infection of the hair, skin, or nails. When it’s on the skin, tinea usually begins as a small red area the size of a pea. As it grows, it spreads out in a circle or ring. Tinea is often called ringworm because it may look like tiny worms are under the skin (but of course, they’re not!).
Because the fungi that cause tinea (ringworm) live on different parts of the body, they are named for the part of the body they infect. Scalp ringworm is found on the head, and body ringworm affects any other skin areas.
- Athlete’s foot is another type of fungal infection that usually appears between the toes but can also affect toenails and the bottom or sides of the feet.
- Jock itch is a fungal infection of the groin and upper thighs. You might think only men and boys get it, but girls and women can get it, too.
- Candida (say: KAN-dih-duh) is a yeast, similar to a fungus. It most often affects the skin around the nails or the soft, moist areas around body openings. Diaper rash in babies can be from one type of candidal infection, as can thrush (white patches often found in the mouths of babies). Older girls and women may develop another form of candidal infection in and around the vagina. This is called a yeast infection.
- Pityriasis versicolor (say: pih-tuh-RYE-uh-sis VUR-suh-kul-ur) is a mouthful to say. It’s a rash caused by a fungus that normally lives on human skin. It can appear over the chest, shoulders, and back, and is common in teenagers.
Why Do Kids Get Fungal Infections?
Lots of kids get fungal infections. Kids love to share and hang out together. Some of these infections are contagious (say: kon-TAY-jus), which means they easily spread from person to person. Close contact or sharing a comb or hairbrush with someone who has tinea can spread the fungus from one person to another. Because fungi need a warm, dark, and humid place to grow, public showers, pools, locker rooms, and even the warmth of shoes and socks can give fungi the perfect opportunity to strike.
Taking antibiotics can cause some kids to get a yeast infection. Antibiotics get rid of germs that make us sick, but they can also kill many of the harmless bacteria in our body. These harmless bacteria normally fight with the yeast for a place to live, but when antibiotics kill them, the yeast is free to grow.
Sometimes, a fungus may infect kids if they have an immune system disorder (this means their bodies can’t fight certain types of infections). This is rare, but it does happen.
How Do I Know If I Have a Fungal Infection?
Many skin problems look like a fungal infection so the best way to know for sure is to ask your doctor. Here are some signs you and a parent can look for:
- Athlete’s foot causes symptoms that include red, dry, cracked, and itchy skin between the toes. Some people also have red, scaly bumps filled with pus on the bottoms and sides of their feet.
- Jock itch appears as a rash with elevated edges in the groin area. It’s itchy and often feels like it is burning. It’s pretty common, especially if you play sports. Sweating and wearing athletic equipment can bring on this kind of rash.
- Ringworm of the head begins as a small bump or scaly patch that looks like dandruff. The pimple or patch becomes larger and the hair in the infected area can become brittle and break off. This can create scaly patches of baldness, but the hair will grow back. If you have ringworm on your arms, legs, or chest, you may see small red spots that grow into large rings.
- Candida yeast causes the skin in the infected area to itch. The skin also might be red and swollen.
- Pityriasis versicolor, also caused by a yeast, makes lots of round and oval-shaped flat, pale patches on the skin, especially the chest, upper arms, and sometimes the face and neck.
Farewell to Fungus!
Getting rid of a fungal infection is not too hard. Your doctor may decide to scrape a small amount of the irritated skin or clip off a piece of hair or nail and look at it under a microscope or do a culture.
Once your doctor knows what kind of infection you have, special antifungal creams and shampoos can help to get rid of it. Sometimes the doctor will prescribe a medicine to take by mouth. Make sure you take the medicine for as long as the doctor tells you.
Maybe fungal infections can’t be avoided altogether, but you can help yourself ward them off.
Walk away from athlete’s foot by:
- Washing your feet every day.
- Drying your feet completely, especially between your toes.
- Wearing sandals or shower shoes when walking around in locker rooms, public pools, and public showers.
- Wearing clean socks. If they get wet or damp, be sure to change them as soon as you can.
- Using a medicated powder on your feet to help reduce perspiration (sweating). Ask a parent first.
You can ditch jock itch by:
- Wearing clean cotton underwear and loose-fitting pants.
- Keeping your groin area clean and dry.
Prevent beastly yeast infections by:
- Changing out of wet swimsuits instead of lounging around in them.
- Wearing clean cotton underpants.
Say bye-bye to pityriasis by:
- Trying not to let your skin get too hot or sweaty.
- Using an anti-dandruff shampoo to wash your skin once a month.
There may always be a “fungus among us,” but we can make it a lot tougher for them to invade and grow!
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014