A fungal skin infection is a contagious skin infection that occurs due to a fungus. The symptoms can vary, but most fungal skin infections cause rashes, bumps, irritation, scaly skin, redness, itching, or blisters.
Fungal infections usually transmit to others through skin-to-skin contact. But fungus grows in moist environments — so you can get it from gyms, locker rooms, and touching objects that someone with a fungal infection has touched like hats, wet towels, combs/ brushes, animals, and soil.
It’s possible to treat them with over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal creams, especially in mild cases. However, some will require a prescription from a doctor.
There are a bunch of different fungal skin infections that you could get, but these are the most common.
1. Yeast infections
Several kinds of yeast infections tend to occur in moist areas of your body, such as:
- skin folds
- the groin
- the armpits
- between the toes
- the corners of the mouth (here, it’s known as angular cheilitis)
- the diaper area
- the vaginal area
- the mouth
Less commonly, breastfeeding or chestfeeding birthing parents can get it on their nipples.
Yeast infection symptoms
- a pink or tan scaly rash, typically with a raised scaly border
- stinging or burning
- surrounding pimples or pustules (possibly)
Yeast infection cause
Yeast infections occur due to a type of fungus called candida that likes to live in warm, moist places. If you’re taking antibiotics, live with diabetes, or have a weakened immune system, you may have a higher risk of acquiring a yeast infection.
Yeast infection treatment
Treatment depends on where the yeast infection is, but most skin yeast infections recover after treatment with medicated creams. If you have a severe infection or a weakened immune system, a doctor might prescribe something stronger.
2. Athlete’s foot
Athlete’s foot (aka Tinea pedis) is a type of fungal infection that affects your feet. It usually shows up between your toes, but it can also occur on the soles of your feet and in the area around your toenails.
It’s also super common. Almost everyone will deal with athlete’s foot at some point in their life. Somewhere between 3 and 15 percent of the population has it right now.
Athlete’s foot symptoms
If you have mild athlete’s foot, you might not even notice. But if the skin between your toes gets moist, feels like it’s burning, and starts to flake, or your feet are itching like crazy, something’s afoot. You might also notice some swelling.
A more severe (but rare) kind of athlete’s foot also causes significant inflammation, blisters, pus-filled bumps, and open sores. Your skin might feel stretched or tight.
There’s also a chronic presentation of athlete’s foot that looks like a pink, scaly rash, that extends to the edge of the foot — it can look a little bit like a moccasin.
Athlete’s foot cause
A group of fungi called dermatophytes cause athlete’s foot. They enter your skin through small cracks or wounds. They infect the top layer of your skin and feed on a protein called keratin.
The fungi can transmit through skin-to-skin contact or contact with skin flakes that are carrying the fungus. But to develop into an infection, the fungi need moisture and warmth — hence their attraction to sweaty feet.
Athlete’s foot treatment
Treatment for athlete’s foot usually involves OTC creams, gels, powders, or sprays that you can find at pharmacies or grocery stores. In some very rare cases, a doctor could prescribe something stronger.
3. Jock itch
Also known as Tinea cruris, jock itch is as unpleasant as it sounds. It’s usually not serious, though.
It’s a type of fungal infection that causes a rash on warm, moist areas of your skin, including areas like your groin, inner thighs, or buttocks. It’s particularly common in younger folks.
Jock itch symptoms
As you probably guessed from the name, this infection makes you itch (and burn) in some, um, awkward places. The skin in the affected area might also be red, flaky, or scaly.
Jock itch cause
Dermatophytes usually live harmlessly on your skin. But when you stay in your sweaty gym clothes after a workout, they can multiply more quickly, thanks to the extra moisture. That can cause jock itch.
This type of fungus transmits to other people super easily. You can contract it through direct contact with someone else who has it or by touching their dirty clothes. Other causes include:
- chronic foot fungus
- sweating a lot
- using a topical steroid
Jock itch treatment
You can usually treat jock itch at home by:
- washing the area with soap and warm water
- drying off after bathing and sweating (a hair dryer might also help)
- changing clothes every day
- using an OTC antifungal cream, powder, or spray
If none of those methods work, contact a doctor so they can prescribe something stronger.
Despite its name, ringworm has nothing to do with worms. It’s a fungal skin infection that forms a ring-shaped rash with a winding, worm-like edge around it. When the rash occurs on your scalp, it’s called Tinea capitis.
Ringworm typically causes itchy, red, scaly, and cracked skin in a circular shape. When it develops on your scalp, it can also cause some hair loss.
Tinea capitis usually needs treatment with prescription antifungal medications, because antifungal creams and powders don’t work well on the scalp. You’ll probably need to take the prescription medication for 1 to 3 months, depending on how severe the presentation is.
5. Toenail fungus
Toenail fungus (aka onychomycosis) is a common fungal infection that develops around your toenails. It can also affect your fingernails and the skin around your nails.
Onychomycosis is very common, accounting for 90 percent of all toenail infections around the world.
Toenail fungus symptoms
If you have onychomycosis, your nails might turn a different color than they usually are. They may also break easily or become thicker than normal.
Toenail fungus cause
This type of fungal infection may occur due to dermatophytes, yeasts, or certain kinds of molds.
Toenail fungus treatment
This is one of the more challenging fungal infections to treat. The main thrust of treatment usually focuses on oral antifungal medications.
There are creams and pills you can use, but they can take a long time to work. You might need to use a topical treatment for up to a year, and oral meds could take up to 3 months to show results.
Lasers and light treatment can also play a role in treatment.
It’s also possible for toenail fungus to come back after treatment. In some severe cases, a doctor might need to remove some (or all) of your nail.
Still not sure what type of infection you might be dealing with? These examples of common fungal infections could help.
A lot of fungal skin infections eventually get better if you use some OTC antifungal treatments. But some fungal infections are more difficult to manage than others. (Looking at you, toenail fungus.)
If you’ve been trying OTC treatments and the infection hasn’t gotten better after a week or 2, contact a doctor. You should also let them know if the infection comes back as soon as you stop applying the OTC treatment.
If your at-home treatment seems to be making the infection worse, stop using it immediately and get professional help.
It’s also not worth the risk of a progressing infection if you have an underlying condition that weakens your immune system or if you have diabetes.
There are a few ways to lower your risk of getting a fungal infection. Just remember that some risk factors might be out of your control (like a weakened immune system).
Try these tips to keep fungal infections away:
- Prioritize personal hygiene.
- Don’t share clothes, towels, or other personal items.
- Wear clean clothes every day (especially clean underwear and socks).
- Wear breathable fabrics (like cotton).
- Dry off your whole body (including any skin creases) after taking a bath or shower or going swimming.
- Stay away from pets or animals that are showing signs of a fungal infection.
The short answer: yes.
Not every rash is a sign of a fungal infection. And not all dry, itchy skin is caused by a fungal infection either. Here are a few other things that could be bugging you:
- Atopic dermatitis. You might have eczema, a chronic condition that causes dry, red, scaly, itchy, or cracked skin. This usually shows up on your inner elbows, on the backs of your knees, or in the folds of your neck. Unlike fungal infections, weather changes, certain soaps, or stress can trigger eczema flares.
- Psoriasis. Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that occurs due to an immune system dysfunction. It causes red, scaly patches on your body, including on your elbows and knees. Silvery, flaky plaques can be a giveaway that you should speak with a physician about your symptoms.
- Shingles. The same virus causes chickenpox and shingles. So if you’ve had chickenpox, that virus is already in your body and shingles can show up whenever it wants. Shingles is painful and causes small, clustered red bumps on your body that look a little like pimples or hives.
Fungi are everywhere, most of the time just minding their own business. But sometimes they can cause skin infections that look like rashes or dry and flaky skin. They’ll usually feel itchy too.
The good news is that most are treatable with OTC medications. Contact a healthcare pro if your symptoms don’t improve, if you aren’t sure if it’s a fungal infection, or if you have a preexisting condition that weakens your immune system.