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Fungal skin infections


Expert reviewer, Dr Anton Alexandroff, Consultant Dermatologist
Next review due April 2024

Fungal skin infections are caused by many different types of fungi, including yeasts. These infections are quite common and often cause an irritating rash.

Here we describe some of the most common fungal skin infections and how to treat them. You’ll also find information about how to avoid catching fungal infections or passing them on.

Woman sitting on the bed embracing her legs

Types of fungal skin infections

There are several different types of fungal infection that can affect your skin and nails.

Athlete’s foot

This is a really common infection. Around seven in 10 people have athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) at some point in their lives. It’s caused by a fungus that grows in the skin between your toes and on the soles of your feet. It grows easily here because the area gets moist when your feet sweat.

The skin between your toes can become itchy, flaky and red, with painful cracks, or fissures. The sole of your foot can also become itchy, thickened and scaly. You might get blisters too.

Athlete’s foot is more likely if your footwear makes your feet sweaty and you’re in a warm, humid environment. You can catch it by walking barefoot on damp, contaminated floors such as in communal bathing or swimming areas. After scratching the affected area, you can spread the infection to other parts of your body.

Athlete's foot

Nail infections

Fungal nail infections can affect any part of your nails. Toenails are much more likely to be affected than fingernails. The infection causes nails to discolour and become rough and crumbly. Your nail may also get thicker.

You’re more likely to get a fungal nail infection if you have other fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot. They’re also more common if you’re older, have another medical condition such as psoriasis or diabetes or if you bite your nails.

Fungal nail infection

Ringworm

Despite its name, ringworm is an infection with a fungus not a worm. It gets its name because it often causes a ring-shaped rash. Ringworm infections are very common and can affect different parts of your body.

Ringworm on your body

This is most common on parts of your body that are exposed, such as your arms, legs or trunk. It causes a red, scaly, ring-shaped rash. You can catch ringworm by touching somebody who already has it or by touching contaminated items such as clothing or bedding. Animals, including cats and dogs, can also carry the ringworm fungus.

Ringworm in your groin

Ringworm in your groin causes an itchy, red rash in your groin and around the top of your legs. Also called ‘jock itch’, it’s more common in men. You’re more likely to get it if:

  • your skin in this area often gets warm and damp
  • you’re very overweight
  • you often wear tight clothing
  • you have diabetes

You’re most likely to get ringworm in your groin if you have other fungal infections. For example, about half of people who are affected also have athlete’s foot. You can spread it to other parts of your body by scratching. You can also pass it to others by direct contact or by sharing towels or clothing.

Ringworm on your scalp

You can get this at any age, but it mostly affects children. Scaly patches develop on your scalp and may be itchy. In some people, the patches become inflamed and red and have pus-filled spots. You may also develop a pus-filled area on your scalp; this is called a ‘kerion’.

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

Scalp infection

Candida (yeast) infections

Candida is a yeast, which is a kind of fungus. It may live harmlessly inside your digestive system or vagina. But if conditions are right, candida can multiply and start to cause symptoms. These yeast infections most often appear around your genitals (vagina or penis), in your mouth or where you have folds of skin. A common name for candida infections is ‘thrush’.

Thrush makes the affected area sore and itchy. The skin is usually red and moist, and small pus-filled spots may appear. In women, vaginal thrush can cause itchiness and a white discharge. Thrush in the mouth most often affects babies and older people (particularly if you have false teeth or a medical condition that lowers your resistance to infection). It appears as white patches, which leave a red mark if you rub them off.

Pityriasis versicolor

This is caused by a type of yeast called Malassezia, which usually lives harmlessly on the skin. It typically affects teenagers and young adults. Pityriasis versicolor causes patches of scaly, discoloured skin that are sometimes mildly itchy. It most commonly appears on your back, chest or upper arms but it can be in other areas. Patches can be pink, brown or red, or may be paler than the surrounding skin. You may notice this especially after being in the sun because the affected area doesn’t tan as much as the rest of your skin.

Symptoms of fungal skin infections

The symptoms of a fungal skin infection depend on the type of fungus or yeast that’s caused it, and where it is. You may notice changes in your skin, hair or nails, which may or may not cause discomfort. The fungus can affect just one area or several areas of your body.

Fungal skin infections can cause a variety of different skin rashes. Your skin may:

  • be red, scaly and itchy
  • produce a fine scale, similar to dry skin
  • become red and sore, with pus-filled spots

Fungal rashes can sometimes be confused with other skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema. However, unlike these conditions, fungal skin infections often look more inflamed around the border than they do in the centre of the patch.

Fungal nail infections often have no symptoms. But over time, they may cause pain or pins and needles, which can interfere with standing and walking or exercising.

Fungal infections of your scalp can cause your hair to become brittle and break off, leaving bald patches, but it usually grows back after treatment.

Diagnosis of fungal skin infections

If you see your GP, they’ll ask about your symptoms and examine you. They may also ask about your medical history.

Your GP will usually diagnose a fungal skin infection by looking at your skin and where your rash is if you have one. If your rash looks unusual or has spread, they may take a scrape of skin or nail for testing. They will send this sample to a laboratory to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment of fungal skin infections

You might not need to see your GP if you need fungal infection treatment. You may be able to get rid of a fungal infection at home with medicines that you can buy over the counter. Your pharmacist will be able to give you advice. But if the condition gets worse or isn’t helped by over-the-counter medicines, contact your GP.

Self-help

There are several things you can do to help stop a fungal infection spreading to the surrounding skin and other parts of your body.

  • Wash the affected areas daily.
  • Dry your skin thoroughly after washing or bathing, especially in the folds of your skin.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes made of cotton or a material that’s designed to wick sweat away from your skin.
  • If you have a toenail infection, keep your feet dry and your nails short.
  • Wear breathable, well-fitting shoes and cotton socks (which you should change every day).
  • Wash your clothes, bedding and towels often.

To avoid spreading the infection to other people:

  • Don’t share personal items such as towels, clothing, brushes or combs.
  • If you have athlete’s foot or a toenail infection, don’t go barefoot in communal changing rooms, swimming pools or the gym.

If you have a fungal infection you can still go to work, and your child can still go to school. But you should start treatment as soon as possible and remember to practise good hygiene to stop it spreading to others.

If you have an infected toenail that isn’t causing you any symptoms, you don’t necessarily need to treat it unless its appearance is bothering you.

For more information, see our section on preventing fungal skin infections below.

Medicines

Most medicines for fungal skin infections are topical treatments (you put them directly onto your skin). There are a variety of fungal infection treatments available in the form of creams, lotions, shampoos and pessaries. Some of these are available over the counter from a pharmacist so you don’t necessarily need to see your doctor.

Your pharmacist will be able to advise on the best treatment for you. Always read the leaflet that comes with your medicine to see how to apply it and for how long. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

If you have a rash that covers a large area of skin or affects your nails or scalp, you may need to take tablets. Your GP may also prescribe tablets if you’ve used a topical treatment and it hasn’t worked. Side-effects of anti-fungal tablets may include feeling sick, diarrhoea and headache.

It’s important to follow the instructions that come with your medicine or the instructions your GP gives you. You may need to continue treatment for up to two weeks after your symptoms disappear depending on the type of fungal infection you have and how bad it is.

Some fungal infections need to be treated for much longer. For example, if you have a fungal nail infection, you may need to treat it for up to a year with a topical treatment or for several months with tablets. It can take another six months to a year for your nail to recover, although it might never look completely normal.

Fungal infections can come back, even if they seem to have cleared up, particularly infections of the feet and toenails.

Causes of fungal skin infections

Many different fungi and yeasts can cause infections of your skin, hair and nails. These may be spread:

  • from person to person
  • from animals to people
  • more rarely, to a person from the soil

Some fungal skin infections – for example, candida (thrush) – usually come from an overgrowth of your own previously harmless fungi.

You can pick up fungi which might cause infection if you come into contact with an infected person or animal. That’s why people who play close contact sports such as wrestling are more likely to get fungal skin infections. You can also pick up fungi by sharing contaminated items such as clothes, towels, hairbrushes or bedclothes. Walking barefoot in shared showers and pool areas may mean you pick up fungi on your feet.

Fungi like warmth and moisture so you’re more likely to get an infection if you:

  • wear tight clothing, or shoes that don’t let your feet ‘breathe’ in a warm, humid environment
  • are overweight and so have skin folds which rub against each other

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


Prevention of fungal skin infections

You can reduce your risk of getting a fungal skin infection by taking some simple precautions.

  • Dry your skin well after washing – especially in skin folds.
  • Wash socks, clothes and bed linen regularly to remove any fungi.
  • Don’t walk barefoot in communal areas such as showers, saunas and swimming pools.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes made of cotton or a breathable material that’s designed to keep moisture away from your skin.
  • Don’t share towels, hairbrushes or combs.
  • Alternate your shoes every two or three days to give them time to dry out.
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar under control.
  • If someone in your family has scalp ringworm, wash bedding, hats, combs and hair accessories in bleach diluted with water.
  • If you suspect that your pet has ringworm, take them to the vet.

Frequently asked questions

  • Yes. Fungal infections can spread from person to person. They can also spread from animals to people and, more rarely, from soil to people. Fungi can be passed on if you use contaminated items such as clothes, bedding or hairbrushes. Or you may pick up fungi by walking barefoot on contaminated floors such as those in communal swimming areas. You can also spread the infection to other parts of your body – for example, by scratching. So, it’s important to seek treatment and practise good hygiene to help stop fungal infections from spreading.

  • The treatment you need for a fungal skin infection will depend on the type of infection you have. Many antifungal topical medicines are available over the counter from your local pharmacy. These come in the form of creams, lotions, shampoos and pessaries that you apply directly to your skin. But some fungal infections need to be treated with tablets. Speak to your pharmacist for advice on the best treatment for you. There are also things you can do to stop your infection getting worse or spreading to others. For more information, see our section on treatment above.

  • Fungal infections can be caused by many different types of fungi. These can be spread between people, or from animals, the soil, contaminated items or floors. Some fungal skin infections, like thrush, are caused when your body’s own yeast (a type of fungus) grows more than usual. You may also be more likely to get a fungal infection if you wear tight clothing, are overweight, pregnant or have certain medical conditions. For more information, see our section on causes above.

  • You may see herbal remedies such as tea tree oil promoted as treatments for fungal skin infections. Some people choose to use these, but there’s not enough evidence that they work and they’re not recommended.

    Natural doesn’t necessarily mean harmless. Herbal remedies contain active ingredients that may interact with other medicines or cause side-effects. If you decide to try herbal remedies, don’t let this delay you from seeking help from your pharmacist or GP.

    If you want to know more about herbal remedies and how they might affect you, ask your pharmacist for advice.

  • If fungal skin infections aren’t treated, they can last for a long time. They could also spread to other parts of your body, cause a bacterial infection or be passed to other people. If you have a fungal infection on your scalp, this may cause a bald patch if left untreated.

    Fungal nail infections don’t necessarily need treatment. Although the infection won’t go away on its own, it won’t usually make you unwell. But sometimes, if you choose not to treat your fungal nail infection, it could spread to your other nails. It could also become painful, make it difficult to walk or spread to other people.

  • Improving your foot hygiene alone probably won’t cure your athlete’s foot – you usually need to use topical medicines. But good foot hygiene can help prevent the spread of the infection to other parts of your body such as your toenails or groin. It can also help to prevent athlete’s foot from coming back and help to stop the infection from spreading to others. For more information on good hygiene, see our sections on self-help and prevention above.



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  • Reviewed by Liz Woolf, Freelance Health Editor and Michelle Harrison, Lead Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, April 2021
    Expert reviewer, Dr Anton Alexandroff, Consultant Dermatologist
    Next review due April 2024

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