Fungi are all around us. Their microscopic spores can be found 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, but they may be easily treated with over-the-counter or prescription medications. Sometimes these skin infections do not heal though and they worsen, possibly triggering 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.
Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning , sepsis is the body’s often deadly response to infection. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and treatment for survival.
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 of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are approximately 1.5 million 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 on human skin. The most well-known types of fungal infections include:
- Athlete’s foot
- Vaginal yeast infection
- “Jock itch”
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 pneumocystispneumonia (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 but was caused by contaminated steroid injections in the spine.
What are the symptoms of a fungal infection?
The symptoms of a fungal infection depend on what part of the body is affected. 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.
Many fungal infections can be prevented by taking certain precautions. 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.
Fungal infections are treated with anti-fungal medications specific to the particular fungus that caused the infection. These may be used in a cream or ointment, suppository, or pill form. Fungal infections that cause sepsis are treated with intravenous anti-fungal drugs. Regular antibiotics are not used for fungal infections because they are not effective.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, which is 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.
Updated March 3, 2021.