Fungal infections kill more people each year than breast cancer or malaria

When you mention a yeast infection, most people will think of athlete’s foot, but the reality is that it kills more people every year than breast cancer or malaria – we asked the experts about the latest developments in the fight against spores

There are more than 150 million serious cases of fungal infections like athlete's foot worldwide
There are more than 150 million serious cases of fungal infections like athlete’s foot worldwide

It may sound like a bad one science fiction Movie from the 1960s, but the reality is that yeast infections now kill four times as many people as malaria – and they’re only getting more dangerous.

There are more than 150 million serious cases of yeast infections and 1.7 million deaths worldwide each year, and these numbers are rising as infections caused by yeast and mold become more difficult to treat.

As we have already seen with bacterial resistance and the development of MRSA and other forms of drug-resistant staph, yeast, and mold mutate and find ways to evade the drugs we use to treat them.

However, the true extent of the threat was not realized until last year, when an international consortium of 29 countries working together to combat all forms of microbial resistance finally put fungi on its to-do list.

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Computer rendering of Candida fungi


(Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF)

Professor Adilia Warris, an international authority on fungal infections and co-director of the Medical Research Council Center for Medical Mycology at Exeter University, says: “Fungal infections are very serious, but I think that’s one of the reasons why they’re not in the forefront of opinion of people is that they often come as a complication of another disease.

“Everyone knows how terrible cancer is, but what people often don’t realize is that cancer patients are also at very high risk of developing fungal infections and are a major factor in many cancer deaths.”

Likewise, studies show that up to one in six people admitted to intensive care units have Covid-19 also have invasive fungal infections.

Like Staphylococcus bacteria, there are fungi like Candida albicans that most of us naturally carry on or in our bodies.

But like “staph,” it’s opportunistic. So when the immune system becomes weakened or something causes an overgrowth of Candida, it can lead to infections like thrush or more serious invasive infections that can affect the blood, heart, brain and other vital organs.

Molds mutate and find ways to evade the drugs we use to treat them


(Getty Images)

Like Candida, Aspergillus is rarely a problem in healthy people, but Professor Warris says: “It releases tiny spores into the air that we breathe. If the lungs are already damaged, someone is already sick, or the immune system is too weak, these spores can grow out in a kind of filament. That can lead to infection with inflammation and really bad pneumonia.”

We only have three drugs to treat fungal infections, and one form of Candida – Candida auris – has developed resistance to all three.

Aspergillus has also found ways to ditch the widespread azole family of antifungal drugs.

Professor Warris says: “There are a number of challenges surrounding the Resistance. As agriculture has intensified, we use more antifungal drugs in food production, which has led to resistance.

“These infections are difficult to diagnose and because we don’t have good diagnostic tests, we treat patients at high risk of fungal diseases who may not have it.”

Failure to follow over-the-counter antifungal directions, stopping treatment, or using antifungals inappropriately can also make it easier for fungi to develop resistance to the treatments we offer.

Fungal infections now kill four times as many people as malaria


(Getty Images)

Professor Warris says: “We have also been faced with a new species of fungus that we have discovered over the last 10 years that is already very resistant to our treatments. This is really shocking because it just came up and we don’t have an answer to that.”

She warns, “We run the risk of getting to a point where these things become completely resistant. We really need to accelerate research to be one step ahead.

Welcome to the House of Mushrooms

Fungi invade when our immune systems are weak, so anything that supports immunity like a healthy diet, exercise, good sleep, and pre- or probiotics should help boost your body’s defenses.

They thrive in dark, damp, and poorly ventilated spaces, so create a more hostile environment of drought, sunlight, and fresh air.

Home remedies that might help include baking soda – sprinkled in water to soak feet or wipe surfaces or in shoes – and also vinegar.

athlete’s foot

Broken and sometimes painful skin tears in the creases of the toes are the most prominent signs of this common fungal infection. But it can also cause dry, scaly skin or scaly red patches around the feet.

Around 15% of the UK population has athlete’s foot and you’re more likely to catch it if you use communal showers or swimming pools. To minimize your risk, wear flip flops and always dry between your toes.

Soaking your feet in a solution of baking soda can get rid of them, but if not, ask your pharmacist for advice on the most appropriate remedy and always follow directions.

Also treat shoes and avoid wearing the same pair two days in a row. If possible, wear sandals.

nail fungus

Athlete’s foot can spread to the nail bed, causing the nails to thicken and turn yellow.

Professor Warris says: “It’s not easy to get rid of because most of the time you have to treat it for as long as it takes for a new nail to grow, which can take several months.”


Contrary to its name, this is a different form of tinea, the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. It can appear anywhere on the body, including the scalp.

A pharmacist can suggest the best antifungal treatment, but follow directions and use as directed. Approval can take up to four weeks.

Wash towels and bedding regularly, don’t share towels, and avoid scratching the rash as this could spread it to other parts of the body.

If you have a pet, look for patches of missing fur, and if you suspect they have ringworm, contact a veterinarian.

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