Prevention is always preferable to cures, and this is no different when it comes to fungal infections. The trouble is that preventing infection is a challenge as fungi are everywhere. The vast majority of fungi that cause skin infections in humans are called dermatophytes. Dermatophytes derive from “skin” and “plant” in Greek and are a label for fungi that have evolved to feed on human or animal keratin, the material that is found in skin, nails, and hair. An infection occurs when the fungi penetrate the skin or the nails and begin to proliferate. When infection occurs, they cause diseases such as athlete’s foot, jock itch, ringworm, and nail fungus, depending on the species and the area it infects. Typically, these fungi only live on the surface of the skin where the cells are dead, as a functioning immune system will prevent the infection from going further into the skin. Common dermatophyte infections affect only the surface layers of the skin. The most common fungal infections are:
- Athlete’s Foot
- Jock Itch
- Nail Fungus
Fungal infections can be transmitted by contact with an infected person or an animal, or by contact with objects like towels, shoes, and linens, that have come into contact with the dermatophyte. The difficulty in preventing infection is that dermatophytes live in diverse environments, and many species of dermatophytes can live for more than a year off of human skin. Good hygienic practices alone will not guarantee that you can avoid contact with dermatophytes. Perfect prevention isn’t practical as fungi are everywhere, but there are ways to reduce your risk of infection. Dermatophytes can proliferate on the surface of the skin, causing infection when it overwhelms the local immune system. There are two ways that you can help prevent infection. The first is to avoid coming into contact with the fungi themselves. The second is to boost your immune system.
High-risk areas: Public swimming pools and locker rooms are common sites where dermatophytes can harbor, as many people use them, walk on bare feet, and tend to be moist and humid, providing an ideal environment for fungi. When you have scrapes and cuts, it’s best to avoid these areas. Wearing a flip flop is another easy way to reduce contact in these high-risk areas.
Sharing: Since dermatophytes can live off of the skin for some time, sharing towels or clothing (usually with family) can be a vector of transmission. If a family member has a fungal infection, avoid sharing towels or clothing until the infections have been completely treated.
Contact Sports: Fungal infections often occur in sports where there is heavy contact between athletes. Experienced rugby players, football players, and wrestlers often have experience with at least one case of a fungal infection. Be aware of the higher risks and don’t skip the proper precautions to help you reduce risk (checking for infection, cleaning equipment, covering up scrapes and cuts properly).
Living a healthy lifestyle always helps, but boosting the immune system is easier said than done. The immune system is complex, individual, and factors that affect immune response are often not controllable. The most practical way to think about the immune system is in terms of risk factors. People who have compromised immune systems or have other risk factors should avoid high-risk areas. The most common factors that affect immune strength are:
- Advanced age
- Suppressed immune system (transplant patients, HIV patients)
There are immune functions in the skin that help to fight off infections from dermatophytes. A healthy immune system will prevent most infections from dermatophytes, most of the time. Since the skin interacts with various bacteria, viruses, and fungi all the time, a weakened immune system increases the chances that one of them will cause infection. If you are of advanced age, suffer from diabetes, you are at higher risk of getting infected. Diabetes, in particular, is a common condition that significantly increases the risk of fungal nail infections. The symptoms of infection also tend to be more severe. While aging and immune weakening are often outside our control, those who know that they are at higher risk should be watching more closely for signs of infection and avoiding risk factors for infection as much as possible.