Fungal Infections

The world is full of molds, yeasts, and other types of fungi, most of which do more good than harm (think beer and penicillin). And most of the time, even pathogenic fungi can live in and on the body without any problem. But these organisms can cause infection if their numbers get out of control or if the body's immune system is suppressed.

Ringworm has nothing to do with worms (even though its scientific name, tinea, means “growing worm” in Latin.) It got its moniker because a tinea capitis infection sometimes has a round shape, as if a worm were curled up under the skin. Ringworm is an infection of a type of fungi called dermatophytes, which may — or may not — line up in a ring-like formation.

Tinea Infections

Parasitic fungi called dermatophytes are responsible for the superficial skin infections commonly, if crudely, known as ringworm (tinea capitis), athlete's foot (tinea pedis), and jock itch (tinea cruris). A tinea infection usually isn't serious, but it can be itchy and uncomfortable; when it strikes the scalp, it can cause hair loss. Tinea-causing fungi thrive in warm, damp places, and are spread by direct contact: You can catch them by touching a person (or a pet) who's infected or from a damp surface, such as the shower in the health club.

Tinea infections can also occur around and under the nails — most often, the toenails — leaving them yellowed, thickened, and crumbling. This condition is called tinea unguium.

Candida Infections

Candida infections, called candidiasis, are caused by the yeast-like fungus Candida albicans. Vaginal candidiasis is characterized by sticky white or yellowish discharge, burning, and itching (see Chapter 3). Other Candida infections include oral thrush, which affects the mouth and throat, and skin infections like intertrigo (which occurs in skin folds) and some cases of diaper rash (see Chapter 6).

Conventional Treatments

Most tinea infections are treated with OTC topical antifungals such as clotrimazole (Mycelex, Lotrimin), or miconazole (Desenex, Monistat), which occasionally cause skin reactions. Scalp ringworm and toenail fungus are almost always treated with oral medications like itraconazole (Sporanox) or terbinafine (Lamisil), which can cause intestinal problems, rashes, and headaches. In cases of scalp ringworm, OTC dandruff shampoos that contain selenium sulfide (Selsun Blue) are sometimes recommended to prevent the spread of the fungi, but they can't eliminate it.

Newborns can actually be more resistant to infection than you'd think. Every baby is born with a set of built-in antibodies that were passed along from his mother, which creates what's known as passive immunity. By his first birthday, however, the child will have lost this protection — and his body will already have started making antibodies of its own.

Candidiasis is treated conventionally with OTC antifungal remedies such as miconazole (Monistat) and butoconazole (Mycelex), which can cause skin reactions and intestinal discomfort. Some doctors may also prescribe oral antifungals, such as fluconazole (Diflucan) or ketoconazole (Nizoral). Fluconazale can cause diarrhea and headaches; ketoconazole can cause nausea and abdominal pain.

Herbal Alternatives

Herbal remedies can be used in conjunction with these medicines, and include the following:

• Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora)

This natural fungicide can clear up a case of tinea unguium (research shows it's active against the most common fungal culprits).

• Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)

This immune-boosting herb can help pharmaceuticals fight fungal infections even better than they could alone. Research shows that combining an oral echinacea preparation with a conventional antifungal cream can significantly reduce the rate of recurrent infections.

• Garlic (Allium sativum)

Fresh garlic extracts are lethal to tinea-causing fungi, and research using ajoene, an isolated garlic constituent, found that it cleared up athlete's foot, ringworm, and jock itch infections as well as the prescription drug terbinafine.

• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

A natural anesthetic and anti-inflammatory, lavender oil is also an effective weapon against the Candida albicans fungus.

• Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

Pomegranate has proven fungicidal and wound-healing properties. Topically applied extracts of pomegranate peel, combined with gotu kola (Centella asiatica), have been shown to clear up oral candidiasis as well as pharmaceutical antifungals.

• Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

A traditional Aboriginal treatment for all types of skin inflammation, tea tree oil can also kill Candida albicans and other fungi.

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