Become a Fan
Does your skin scratch or burn? You could have symptoms of common fungal infections. These superficial infections can be easily treated and prevented by a number of herbal treatments.
Molds, mildews, smuts and other fungi occupy a special niche in the living world. Unlike plants, fungi do not contain chlorophyll and cannot make food from sunlight. Instead, fungi such as mushrooms absorb nutrients from dead plant material, and the end result is humus--the organic component of soil. In some cases, however, fungi thrive on the living tissue of plants or animals, damaging crops or causing infection in the process.
Ringworm and Yeast
Most of the pathogenic fungi that afflict humans are normal inhabitants of the skin that cause infection only when their environment changes. For example, immunocompromised people, cancer patients and people taking broad-spectrum antibiotics have a higher risk of fungal skin infection. Superficial fungal infections are usually of two types, tinea (ringworm) or yeast. Generally, neither infection is serious, but they can be unsightly, itchy and downright persistent. The good news is that both can be successfully treated with herbs.
Tinea infections, called ringworm because of the characteristic shape of the lesion, can be caused by various species of fungi, namely microsporum, trichophyton and epidermophyton. Tinea diseases usually appear as round, scaly areas of skin with an enlarged outer margin and a clear inner area. Scratching an affected area often breaks the skin, both worsening the fungal problem and paving the way for a bacterial infection. Fungi thrive in warm, moist areas, so keeping skin dry is the first step to preventing infections.
Tinea comes in many forms. The most common, and often chronic, form of tinea is athlete's foot, or tinea pedis. It affects the webs between the toes and appears as vesicles or peeling skin. Other forms of tinea include tinea capitis, or scalp infection, often found in schoolchildren; tinea cruris, or jock itch, infection of the genital area; tinea barbae, infection in the beard area; and tinea unguium, or onychomycosis, infection of the nail. Tinea versicolor, an infection of the upper layers of skin on the neck, upper chest and back, causes uneven skin coloring and scaling. It becomes more noticeable with a suntan and is more common in teenagers and young adults than in older people.1
Yeast infections, or candidiasis, are caused by the fungus candida, formerly known as monilia. These infections commonly occur in the folds of skin surrounding the genital area. They cause severe itching, burning, redness and sometimes a curdlike secretion. In infants, candida infections can also accompany diaper rash. Another form of candida is thrush, an infection in the mouth that appears as white patches.1
More serious cases of tinea and candida affect the lower layers of skin, sometimes getting into the blood and spreading to other organs. These infections are characterized by fever, open skin lesions or raised bumps on the skin. If any of these symptoms are present, a physician should be contacted because fungal diseases can be deadly. To diagnose a fungal infection, a doctor may scrape off a small amount of surface skin for microscopic examination or possibly for lab culture.
For skin disease, topical treatments--those applied directly to the skin--are safest. Drugs taken orally affect both diseased and normal tissues, thus increasing the chance of side effects. Conventional skin disease treatments such as the drugs ketoconazole, ciclopirox, naftifine and tolnaftate can irritate the skin, causing stinging, itching, redness, drying or allergic reactions.2 Many herbs can be used safely for superficial skin infections, but herbs may cause allergic reactions and should be discontinued if pain increases or itching and swelling occur. Most fungal infections clear up in two to three weeks, although infections of the hands and feet take longer to respond, because the skin is thicker. If an infection lasts for six weeks or longer, a physician should be contacted.
*Goldenseal: The antimicrobial activity of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is due to its potent alkaloids, primarily hydrastine and berberine.3 Taken internally, goldenseal may cause both digestive problems and nervous symptoms, including depression. It can be toxic--even fatal--in high doses.3 For this reason, goldenseal is best used topically as a poultice, dusted directly onto the skin, or as a mouthwash. Although few scientific studies have validated the effectiveness of goldenseal against fungal infections, its berberine constituent does work against many types of fungus including candida.4,5 Another herb that contains berberine is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), which has demonstrated effectiveness against skin fungi and is an anti-inflammatory agent as well.6 Additional herbs that may be useful against fungal infections because of their berberine content include Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), yellowroot (Xanthorrhiza simplicissima) and barberry (Berberis vulgaris).7
*Chamomile: Studies have found that chamazulene, a component of the essential oil of German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), has both anti-inflammatory and antiseptic activities.8 Chamazulene is also found in Roman chamomile, but in lesser concentrations. Its anti-inflammatory activity stems from its ability to inhibit inflammatory prostaglandins production.9 Essential oil of chamomile can be applied directly to the skin but is best diluted in oil or lotion. Traditionally, chamomile extracts are used topically to treat diaper rash and orally to treat mouth infections. Chamomile is contained in many skin creams and, because it is virtually nontoxic, is good for preventing skin infections. (In a few rare cases, however, allergic reactions to chamomile have occurred.) A chamomile extract also proved effective in promoting wound healing.10
*Echinacea: The antiseptic and immune-stimulating properties of echinacea (E. angustifolia, E. pallida or E. purpurea) make it one of the most widely used herbs. Although no studies have been conducted to determine if echinacea itself is toxic to fungi, E. pallida as well as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) have been shown to enhance white blood cell activity.11 Taking echinacea as well as antibiotic herbs during an infection may thus help the body rid itself of a skin infection.
*Tea tree oil: The essential oil from various species of melaleuca, tea tree oil is active against most forms of fungus that cause skin infections, including candida.12 In one study, a cream containing 10 percent tea tree oil relieved symptoms of athlete's foot.13 Another double-blind, randomized clinical trial compared the effectiveness of tea tree oil to that of a popular prescription treatment for toenail fungus, clotrimazole. Each patient was assigned to use one of the treatments twice a day for six months. Halfway into the study, 55 percent of the clotrimazole and 56 percent of the tea tree oil users had improved toenail appearance. At the end of the study, 11 percent of the clotrimazole vs. 18 percent of the tea tree oil users had negative cultures for fungus, and 61 percent of the clotrimazole vs. 60 percent of the tea tree oil users had improved. The results showed that tea tree oil is a comparable, effective, safe and inexpensive treatment for toenail fungus.14 It can be applied full strength to the toenail but should be diluted for skin applications. Tea tree oil is toxic and should never be taken orally.
*Garlic: Historically used to treat ringworm, garlic (Allium sativum) was recently investigated for its effectiveness against tinea-causing fungi. An aqueous garlic extract was effective against 90 percent of the organisms that cause tinea infections.15 Another study found that a purified component of garlic, ajoene, inhibited a wide range of fungi, including candida.16 A third study evaluating the effect of a cream containing 0.4 percent ajoene on athlete's foot showed that 79 percent of patients were free of fungus after just seven days of treatment.17
Many herbs have shown antifungal activity in the lab, yet little work has been done to document their specific effectiveness against fungal infections of the skin. Sage (Salvia officinalis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris), for instance, also have a history of use as antifungal agents, and their effectiveness has been confirmed in laboratory studies but not in human studies as of yet.3
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Previously published in Nutrition Science News