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Fungal skin infections

Key points

  • Fungal infections are common and can affect your skin, hair and nails.
  • They are mainly caused by two groups of fungi – dermatophytes or yeasts.
  • Fungal skin infections can cause a variety of different rashes. Often they cause an itchy, scaly, dry, red patch of skin that slowly gets bigger.
  • You can usually treat fungal skin infections with either a cream or tablets.

Fungal skin infections are caused by different types of fungi, including dermatophytes and yeasts.

About fungal skin infections

Fungi invade and grow in dead keratin. Keratin is a protein that makes up your skin, hair and nails. There are several different types of fungal infections. They are divided into different groups depending on what type of fungus is involved.

Types of fungal skin infections

Some common fungal skin infections are listed below.

Dermatophyte infections

Athlete’s foot (Tinea pedis)

Around one in five people in the UK have athlete’s foot. It's caused by a fungus that grows in warm, damp areas of skin, such as between your toes. The fungal infection makes your skin itchy, flaky and red. It also causes white cracks to appear, especially between your toes and on the side of your foot. Occasionally it causes blisters.

You can pick up athlete’s foot if you walk bare foot on damp, contaminated floors such as communal shower facilities, swimming pools or saunas. If you don’t wash your hands after you touch a contaminated area, it can spread to other parts of your body. See our frequently asked questions for more information.

Nail infections (Tinea unguium)

Fungal nail infections usually start at the edge of your nail and spread slowly down to the base. They tend to take a long time to develop. They cause your nail to discolour and become crumbly. The surrounding tissue may also thicken. Later, your nail can become so thick that it's painful to wear shoes. Toenails are usually affected more than fingernails.

You can get a fungal nail infection if you have athlete’s foot and it spreads to your nails. You can also get an infection if your nail is weak, for example from a previous injury.

See our frequently asked questions for more information.

Ringworm of the body (Tinea corporis)

This often affects exposed parts of your body, such as your arms, legs or face, and causes a red, ring-shaped rash. Ringworm is contagious. You can catch it by coming into contact with somebody who already has ringworm or touching contaminated items, such as clothing or bedding. Domesticated animals, such as sheep, cattle and pets can also carry the fungi that cause ringworm.

                          ring worm
                                         
                                         Ringworm of the body

Ringworm of the groin (Tinea cruris)

This is also called ‘jock itch’ because it’s more common in young men. This is because the scrotum and thigh are in close contact and create conditions in which fungi can thrive. It can also affect women if they wear tight clothing. It can cause an itchy, red rash in your groin and the surrounding area.

Like ringworm of the body, ringworm of the groin is contagious and can be passed on in the same ways. You may also get ringworm in your groin if you have athlete’s foot and touch your groin after touching your foot without washing your hands.

Ringworm of the scalp (Tinea capitis)

This can occur at any age, but mostly affects children before they reach puberty. Ringworm can affect any part of your scalp but you usually get patches of it. Symptoms can be similar to those of ringworm on your groin and body and your scalp will look scaly and feel itchy. You may also develop pus-filled areas on your scalp, called ‘kerions’. During the infection your hair may fall out and leave bald areas but this usually grows back once the infection has been treated.

You can get ringworm on your scalp by sharing a contaminated comb or clothing used by somebody with the infection.

Yeast infections

Some fungal skin infections are caused by yeast infections, such as the following.

Intertrigo

Intertrigo is a yeast infection that you can get in the folds of your skin, such as on your abdomen (tummy), if you're overweight. It's often caused by the yeast Candida albicans. It affects areas where your skin presses or rubs together and can cause chafing. If you have intertrigo, your skin may turn red or brown and if it’s very moist, it can start to break down.

Pityriasis versicolor (Tinea versicolor)

This condition is caused by a type of yeast called Malassezia. It’s quite common and usually affects young adults after they reach puberty. If you have pityriasis versicolor, your back, upper arms and torso may have patches of scaly, itchy and discoloured skin. This is usually a pink, brown or red colour. If you have darker skin, it may lose some of its colour.

Thrush (Candida albicans)

C. albicans is a common fungus that often lives in your mouth, stomach, skin and women’s vaginas. Usually it doesn't cause any problems. However, if you’re unwell, pregnant, take antibiotics or have diabetes, the yeast can multiply and cause the symptoms of thrush.

A thrush infection often looks like small white patches, which leave a red mark if you rub them off. In women, vaginal thrush can cause itchiness and a white discharge.

Thrush can also affect newborn babies in their mouth and this is called oral thrush. It's easy to mistake the white patches for milk. It isn't usually serious, but babies with thrush in their throats may stop feeding properly. Babies may also develop thrush in the nappy area.

Symptoms of fungal skin infections

 The symptoms and appearance of a fungal skin infection depend on the type of fungus that has caused it. They will also depend on which part of your body is affected. Fungal rashes are sometimes confused with other skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema.

Fungal skin infections can cause a variety of different skin rashes. Some are red, scaly and itchy. Others may produce a fine scale, similar to dry skin. The fungus can affect just one area, or several areas of your body. If you get a fungal infection of your scalp, you may lose some hair.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.

Causes of fungal skin infections

You’re more likely to get a fungal skin infection if you:

  • are overweight
  • don’t dry your skin fully after bathing
  • come into contact with a person or animal with a fungal skin infection
  • come into contact with contaminated items, for example, clothes, towels and bedclothes
  • walk barefoot in shower and pool areas
  • wear tight clothing that doesn’t allow sweat to evaporate
  • have poorly controlled diabetes
  • have recently taken a course of antibiotics
  • are pregnant
  • have a weakened immune system, for example, HIV/AIDS

Diagnosis of fungal skin infections

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.

Your GP will usually diagnose fungal skin infections by looking at the appearance of your skin and the location of any rash. He or she may take a scrape of your skin or a fragment of your nail or hair. Your GP will send this sample to a laboratory for testing to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment of fungal skin infections

Self-help

Your GP will advise you to make sure you dry the affected area thoroughly after washing, especially in the folds of your skin.

Medicines

You will usually need to use an antifungal treatment that you put directly onto the affected area of your skin. These are known as topical treatments. There are a variety of treatments available in the form of creams, lotions, paints, shampoos and medicated powders. Some of these are available over the counter from a pharmacist, without prescription. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

If you have a rash that covers a large area of your skin or affects your nails or scalp, you may need to take tablets. Your GP may also prescribe you tablets if you have used a topical treatment that hasn’t worked. These treatments can occasionally cause side-effects, which include skin irritation and stomach problems.

Your symptoms may return, even if they seem to have cleared up. It's important to continue with your treatment for up to two weeks after your symptoms disappear.

You may need to take some treatments for a few weeks, or up to four to 12 months for toenail infections.

Prevention of fungal skin infections

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting a fungal skin infection and stop an infection from spreading. Some examples are listed below.

  • Dry your skin thoroughly after you have a bath.
  • Wash your socks, clothes and bed linen frequently to remove any fungi.
  • Wear clean flip-flops or plastic shoes in damp, communal areas, such as showers, saunas and swimming pools.
  • Wear loose fitting clothes that are made of cotton or a material designed to keep moisture away from your skin.
  • Don't share towels, hair brushes and combs that could be carrying any fungi.
  • Alternate pairs of shoes every two or three days to give them time to dry out.
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar under control.
  • Soak pillows, hats, combs or scissors with bleach and water if someone in your family has scalp ringworm.

Children can still go to school, and adults to work, but it's important to practise good hygiene to prevent fungal infections spreading to others.


Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, December 2013.

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For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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