Fungi: Hazards and health applications

Fungi exist throughout the environment. Some of them are useful, for example as food or as the basis of medication. Others are less desirable, such as mold on food, or spores that cause diseases.

Neither plants nor animals, fungi belong to a group of their own. There are about 99,000 known species of fungal organisms, including yeasts, rusts, smuts, mildews, molds, and mushrooms.

Fungi are found in almost any habitat, including the International Space Station (ISS), where they were found to decompose food, with some spores surviving 5 months in microgravity.

Many live on the land, mainly in soil or on plant material. They are one of the most widely distributed organisms on the Earth.

They feature in foods, such as mushrooms and baker’s yeast, and they have important roles in medicine and the environment. This article will look at some of the hazards and uses of fungi in health.

Infections

[ringworm is a fungal infection]
Ringworm is a common fungal infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are about 1.5 million different species of fungi on Earth, some 300 of which cause illness in humans.

Fungal diseases often stem from common fungi found in the environment. Most fungi are not dangerous, but some can be harmful to health.

Fungal infections are described as opportunistic or primary. Infections that affect many areas of the body are known as systemic infections, while those that affect only one area are known as localized.

Opportunistic fungal infections take advantage of the weakened immune system. They are common in patients whose immune systems are compromised, for example, because of HIV or AIDS or other medical problems.

These types of infections can be particularly aggressive and can spread rapidly to other organs. Sometimes they can be fatal.

Opportunistic fungal infections include aspergillosis, candidiasis, and mucormycosis.

Primary fungal infections can occur in people with a normal immune system. They can cause serious health problems. Some primary fungal infections are more common in certain geographic areas.

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Primary fungal infections tend to develop at a slow rate. In some cases months or years may pass before a person seeks medical attention. For most people with a normal immune system, the fungal infections do not spread to organs deep in the body.

Paracoccidioidomycosis, coccidioidomycosis, and histoplasmosis are examples of primary fungal infections.

Localized fungal infections affect only one area of the body. When normal balances that are responsible for keeping fungi in check are upset, localized fungal infections can occur. Some kinds of antibiotics kill harmful bacteria but they can also kill also helpful bacteria. As a result, fungal growth can remain unchecked.

In time, the resulting overgrowth can cause symptoms, but they are typically mild. In most cases as soon as the bacteria begins to grow back, the balance is restored and the problem usually resolves. Localized fungal infections usually involve areas such as the skin and nails, vagina, mouth or sinuses.

People who live or work in damp places where mold is present have a higher chance of developing respiratory diseases, skin irritation, and other health problems. There may also be a higher risk of cancer.

Who is at risk?

A fungal infection can affect any person, even those who are relatively healthy. People come in contact with fungi on a daily basis. They are constantly breathing in fungal spores each day without getting sick.

A person with a weakened immune system is more likely to develop a fungal infection. Some people are born with a weak immune system. Others may have an illness that attacks the immune system such as HIV or AIDS. Certain medications, including corticosteroids and cancer chemotherapy, can lower the body’s ability to fight infections.

The most common fungi to cause skin infections are the tinea group of fungi, which causes ringworm and athlete’s foot. Another common type is candida, which is responsible for thrush.

Athlete’s foot is a common fungal infection of the toes and feet. Thrush is a common fungal infection of the mouth and vagina. Fungal infections of the skin, nails, and vagina are common, but they are not usually serious, and they do not spread deeper into the body.

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