Fungal Infections

Fungi are all around us. Their microscopic spores are on the ground and in the air. Most of these fungi are harmless. However, certain types can cause serious fungal infections in some people.

Fungal infections can occur anywhere in your body but, most commonly, they begin on your skin. Most cause some discomfort, such as redness and itching on the skin. Usually over-the-counter or prescription medications take care of this. Sometimes these skin infections do not heal though and they worsen, possibly causing sepsis. When a fungus is inhaled and enters your body or is introduced into your body in another way, the risk of infection rises, especially if you have an impaired immune system. People with impaired immune systems are more likely to develop sepsis with fungal infections than people with normal immune systems.

Sepsis is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.

Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.

Examples of fungal infections

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are millions of different species of fungi on Earth. About 300 are known to make people sick. Fungi live outdoors in soil and on plants and trees. They may also live on indoor surfaces and human skin. The most well-known types of fungal infections include:

  • Athlete’s foot
  • Vaginal yeast infection
  • “Jock itch”
  • Ringworm

The most common types of fungi that cause serious or life-threatening infections include:

  • Aspergillus, which causes aspergillosis. It most often affects people with lung disease or a weakened immune system
  • Candida, which causes candidiasis, also called thrush. If it enters the blood system, it is called invasive candidiasis.
  • Histoplasma, which causes histoplasmosis when the spores enter the lungs. The majority of people who inhale the spores will not become ill, but it can cause serious illness, especially among people with a weakened immune system.
  • Pneumocystis jirovecii, which causes pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP). This fungus generally causes serious illness in people who have impaired immune systems, particularly immune system impairment caused by HIV/AIDS or corticosteroid use.

In 2012, there was an outbreak of fungal meningitis in some parts of the United States. This type of meningitis is not contagious. Contaminated steroid injections in the spine caused it.

Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is caused by a fungus found in the soil in the southwest U.S., particularly in California. There have been rising numbers of Valley fever in California, tripling over the past few years.

What are the symptoms of a fungal infection?

Fungal infection symptoms depend on where the infection is. For example:

  • A vaginal yeast infection usually causes itching and foul discharge from the vagina.
  • A fungal infection on the skin may cause redness, itching, flaking, and swelling.
  • A fungal infection in the lungs may cause coughing, fever, chest pain, and muscle aches.

Prevention

Some precautions can prevent many fungal infections. For example, to reduce the risk of developing athlete’s foot, it’s important to keep your feet clean and dry. If walking in a locker room, pool, or a communal shower, wear flip flops or sandals to keep your skin from touching the floor. To reduce the risk of a vaginal yeast infection, it’s important to wear “breathable” underwear, avoid using scented sprays or powders, and practice good hygiene.

To prevent inhaling spores which can cause a lung infection, wear a mask when working in an area where fungal spores may be stirred up and get into the air you are breathing, such as chicken coops or other areas where there may be bird or bat droppings, as well as decaying vegetation, which can happen when you’re working in the garden.

Treatment

Fungal infections are treated with anti-fungal medications specific to the particular fungus that caused the infection. These medications can be cream or ointment, suppository, or pill form. Fungal infections that cause sepsis are treated with intravenous anti-fungal drugs. Antibiotics are not used for fungal infections because they are not effective.

Some fungal infections are becoming harder to treat because the fungi are becoming resistant to the medications that used to kill them. This is called antimicrobial resistance, AMR. In October 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a first-ever list of 19 fungi that appear to be the biggest threat to public health. These particular fungi most often affect people who are already seriously ill, with impaired immune systems. These include people who have cancer or chronic respiratory diseases, among others, or have had an organ transplant. The WHO report is available here.

 

If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.” 

what is sepsis

The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, a downloadable format for easier printing.

Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.

Suggested Citation: Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Fungal Infections. 2022. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/fungal-infections/

Updated October 25, 2022.

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Fungal Infections

Fungi are all around us. Their microscopic spores are on the ground and in the air. Most of these fungi are harmless, however certain types can cause serious fungal infections in some people.