Dear Dr. B: What is a fungus? What are the common fungi which cause illnesses in humans?
Answer: The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines fungi as any of a wide variety of organisms that reproduce by spores, including the mushrooms, moulds, yeasts, and mildews. Spores can remain dormant for years. Some of the characteristics of fungi are:
-fungi absorb food by excreting enzymes that break down complex substances into molecules that can be absorbed into the hyphae
-the spores of most fungi grow a network of slender tubes called hyphae that spread into and feed off of dead organic matter or living organisms
-fungi can live in a wide variety of environments, fungal spores can survive extreme temperatures and fungi exist in over 100,000 species, nearly all of which live on land
-they can be extremely destructive, feeding on almost any kind of material and causing food spoilage and many plant diseases
-although fungi were once grouped with plants, they are now considered a separate kingdom.
Fungi are all around us. The fungus grows best in moist, damp, dark places with poor ventilation and on skin that is irritated, weakened, or continuously moist. Most of the fungi are very helpful in the natural environment and only a few cause diseases in humans, plants and animals.
Candida is yeast like fungus which may cause athlete’s foot, vaginitis, thrush, or other infections. It can thrive in moist skin fold areas under the breasts, overhanging abdominal adipose tissues, groins, between fingers and toes, in the armpits and in the anus. Some of the fungi are dermatophytes which cause parasitic infections of the skin, hair, nails and adjacent mucous membranes.
Systemic fungal infections occur when spores are touched or inhaled, or there is an overgrowth of fungi in or on the body. Such infections are most often in people taking antibiotics which kill off the bacteria that normally keep fungi at bay. This is also the case in people with endocrine disorders, immune diseases, and other conditions such as obesity, AIDS, tuberculosis, major burns, leukemia, and diabetes mellitus. Patients with systemic infection may have no symptoms or may have flu-like symptoms – coughing, fever, chest pain, chills, weight loss, and difficulty with breathing.
Certain fungi, such as mushrooms, can produce poisonous toxins that may prove fatal if ingested. Certain moulds can be highly toxic to humans. A condition called egotism is caused by eating bread prepared from rye infected with the fungus.
Moulds are often found spreading over bread, cheese, books, and other things in the home and may be a menace to our health. Painted walls, particularly in humid places such as showers, can become overgrown by certain fungi. Certain types of wallpapers also serve as a source of nutrition for some moulds and may prove to be harmful. Virtually all buildings contain moulds depending on the amount of moisture present in the building. Moulds can cause headache, nausea or respiratory symptoms amongst the occupants of the building.
Skin infection with fungus can be treated with antifungal skin ointment. Systemic fungal infection requires oral antifungal pills. Fungal infection can be prevented by keeping our body and the environment clean and healthy.
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