Mushrooms, tinea the green slime that forms on stagnant pools are all related. They are fungi (plural of fungus). Fungi are members of the plant kingdom, and are one of the types of microscopic life that can infect human beings in many diverse ways. The technical terms for a fungal infection are a mycotic infection or mycosis.
The most common site of fungal infection is the skin, where they cause an infection that is commonly known as tinea. The fungus that causes tinea can be found everywhere in the environment in the form of hardy spores. These are microscopic in size and may survive for decades before being picked up and starting an infection. Between the toes the fungus causes a type of tinea commonly known as athlete’s foot. This is because athletes sweat and wear close fitting shoes that lead to the ideal warm, damp environment favoured by fungi. Similar infections in the groin cause a red, itchy, rapidly spreading rash. In both situations, creams or lotions are used to kill off the fungus before it spreads too widely. The rash is often slow to clear, because the treatments destroy the fungus, and do not necessarily heal the rash. The body heals the rash itself once the infection is controlled.
Unfortunately, fungal skin infections (dermatomycoses) tend to recur because the fungus in its cyst form is resistant to many types of treatment. The active forms of the fungus are killed, but the spores may remain in the skin pores and reactivate once the treatment is ceased. To prevent this condition, keep the affected areas cool by wearing the correct clothing and foot wear, and dry carefully when wet.
Fungi are also responsible for many gut infections, particularly in the mouth and around the anus. It is a rare infant that escapes without an attack of oral thrush. The white plaques that form on the tongue and insides of the cheeks are familiar to most mothers, and this is due to one of a number of fungi. Paints or gels used in the mouth usually bring it rapidly under control.
Around the anus, the fungus can cause an extremely itchy rash, but in women it may spread forward from the anus to the vagina to cause the white discharge and intense itch of vaginal thrush or candidiasis. Movement from the anus to vagina is aided by nylon underwear, tight clothing (particularly jeans), wet bathers and most importantly, sex.
Fungi live normally in the gut, and are in balance with the bacteria that are meant to be there to help with the digestion of our food. Antibiotics may kill off the good bacteria, allowing the fungal numbers to increase dramatically, or they may migrate to unwanted areas. In these circumstances, they can cause trouble.
The most serious diseases develop when fungal infections occur deep inside the body in organs such as the lungs, brain and sinuses. These diseases are very difficult to treat and it may take many months with potent antifungal drugs to bring them under control. Fortunately, this type of condition is relatively rare.
The most obvious form of fungal infection is ringworm. This is not really a worm, but a fungal infection growing outward from a central spore, in exactly the same way that mushroom rings form in the garden in damp weather.
Every species of fungus (and bacteria, but not viruses) has two names – a family name (eg. Candida) which uses a capital initial letter and comes first, and a specific species name (eg: albicans) which uses a lower case initial letter and comes second. The fungus which causes thrush is thus called “Candida albicans” but may be abbreviated to “C. albicans”.
There are two types of ointments and creams in the Australian market against fungi. One type weakens the fungi dramatically and stops them from functioning (Fungistatic) e.g. Daktarin but a while after you stop treatment they start to flourish again, the second type kills the fungus (fungicidal) e.g. Lamisil, whereby if after treatment you do not allow parts of the skin to be too wet and warm for too long, you may not have a recurrence of the infection.