Skin

Updated 17 November 2017

When is that itch a fungus?

Psoriasis, eczema and fungal infections can look similar at a glance. But how do you know when it’s a fungal infection?

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What do jock itch, ringworm, thrush and athlete’s foot have in common? They all cause itching, but there is another thing – they often get mistaken for eczema or psoriasis.

If the above-mentioned conditions all cause similar symptoms, why can’t we treat them the same? Surely a cream for eczema or skin dryness fights any sort of skin condition? The answer is it doesn't work that way.

What is a fungal infection?

Fungal infections are caused by fungi, a group of microscopic organisms that thrive on the dead keratin of the skin, hair or nails.

Fungal infections can spread from one person to another, or through public spaces such as shared showers or swimming pools.

Different fungi cause different fungal infections. One of the most common forms of fungal infections is athlete's foot (tinea pedis), which is caused by ringworm and causes redness, itching and peeling around the toes.athlete's foot on toes

                                                           Athlete's foot between the toes

What is eczema?

Eczema is a disease caused by inflammation of the skin and the skin's inability to retain adequate moisture. The result is a dry, troublesome rash that itches, which may occur on almost any part of the body.

The redness, itchiness and rash caused by eczema isn't contagious. Eczema is not related to fungus, but it's possible to also have a fungal infection on top of eczema. In that case, your doctor will have to take a skin swab to determine whether a fungal infection is present or not.

Eczema tends to appear on the face and scalp of babies and in places where the skin creases or folds in adults, such as the back of the knees or elbows, between the fingers or on ankles and wrists.

Doctors aren't sure what exactly causes eczema, but there are many allergens and irritants that can trigger a flare-up. Eczema is also most likely to be inherited.

eczema on skin

                                                          Eczema up close

What is psoriasis?

Just like eczema, psoriasis is also a chronic skin disease that causes redness and flaking. Psoriasis can affect big patches of skin all over the body, but can also occur on fingernails, toenails and around joints.

Psoriasis usually starts as one or more small psoriatic plaques – dark-pink, raised patches of skin with overlying silvery flaky scales – usually on the scalp, knees, elbows, back and buttocks. It can also occur in the eyebrows, armpits, navel and groin. It’s more likely to flake, while itching is uncommon.

Recent research has shown that psoriasis is a disorder of the immune system. A type of white-blood cell, called a T cell, helps protect the body against infection and disease. Abnormalities in the so-called T helper cells and the way that they interact with skin cells are associated with psoriasis.

hand with psoriasis

                                                   A plaque of psoriasis on the hand 

How to find the correct treatment

  • Consult your doctor or dermatologist for the right treatment. A fungal infection sometimes requires an oral antibiotic.
  • Consider the duration of the symptoms. Eczema and psoriasis are chronic, while a fungal infection, although it may reoccur, can be eliminated.
  • If your symptoms don't respond to an over-the-counter treatment, see a doctor. 

Image credit: iStock

 

Ask the Expert

Skin expert

Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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