16.4 Mycoses of the Skin

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the most common fungal pathogens associated with cutaneous and subcutaneous mycoses
  • Compare the major characteristics of specific fungal diseases affecting the skin

Many fungal infections of the skin involve fungi that are found in the normal skin microbiota. Some of these fungi can cause infection when they gain entry through a wound; others mainly cause opportunistic infections in immunocompromised patients. Other fungal pathogens primarily cause infection in unusually moist environments that promote fungal growth; for example, sweaty shoes, communal showers, and locker rooms provide excellent breeding grounds that promote the growth and transmission of fungal pathogens.

Fungal infections, also called mycoses, can be divided into classes based on their invasiveness. Mycoses that cause superficial infections of the epidermis, hair, and nails, are called cutaneous mycoses. Mycoses that penetrate the epidermis and the dermis to infect deeper tissues are called subcutaneous mycoses. Mycoses that spread throughout the body are called systemic mycoses.


A group of cutaneous mycoses called tineas are caused by dermatophytes, fungal molds that require keratin, a protein found in skin, hair, and nails, for growth. There are three genera of dermatophytes, all of which can cause cutaneous mycoses: Trichophyton, Epidermophyton, and Microsporum. Tineas on most areas of the body are generally called ringworm, but tineas in specific locations may have distinctive names and symptoms (see Table 16.3 and Figure 16.22). Keep in mind that these names—even though they are Latinized—refer to locations on the body, not causative organisms. Tineas can be caused by different dermatophytes in most areas of the body.

Some Common Tineas and Location on the Body

Tinea corporis (ringworm)


Tinea capitis (ringworm)


Tinea pedis (athlete’s foot)


Tinea barbae (barber’s itch)


Tinea cruris (jock itch)


Tinea unguium (onychomycosis)

Toenails, fingernails

Table 16.3

Tineas are superficial cutaneous mycoses and are common. (a) Tinea barbae (barber’s itch) occurs on the lower face. (b) Tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) occurs on the feet, causing itching, burning, and dry, cracked skin between the toes. (c) A close-up view of tinea corporis (ringworm) caused by Trichophyton mentagrophytes.
Figure 16.22 Tineas are superficial cutaneous mycoses and are common. (a) Tinea barbae (barber’s itch) occurs on the lower face. (b) Tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) occurs on the feet, causing itching, burning, and dry, cracked skin between the toes. (c) A close-up view of tinea corporis (ringworm) caused by Trichophyton mentagrophytes. (credit a, c: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit b: modification of work by Al Hasan M, Fitzgerald SM, Saoudian M, Krishnaswamy G)

Dermatophytes are commonly found in the environment and in soils and are frequently transferred to the skin via contact with other humans and animals. Fungal spores can also spread on hair. Many dermatophytes grow well in moist, dark environments. For example, tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) commonly spreads in public showers, and the causative fungi grow well in the dark, moist confines of sweaty shoes and socks. Likewise, tinea cruris (jock itch) often spreads in communal living environments and thrives in warm, moist undergarments.

Tineas on the body (tinea corporis) often produce lesions that grow radially and heal towards the center. This causes the formation of a red ring, leading to the misleading name of ringworm.

Several approaches may be used to diagnose tineas. A Wood’s lamp (also called a black lamp) with a wavelength of 365 nm is often used. When directed on a tinea, the ultraviolet light emitted from the Wood’s lamp causes the fungal elements (spores and hyphae) to fluoresce. Direct microscopic evaluation of specimens from skin scrapings, hair, or nails can also be used to detect fungi. Generally, these specimens are prepared in a wet mount using a potassium hydroxide solution (10%–20% aqueous KOH), which dissolves the keratin in hair, nails, and skin cells to allow for visualization of the hyphae and fungal spores. The specimens may be grown on Sabouraud dextrose CC (chloramphenicol/cyclohexamide), a selective agar that supports dermatophyte growth while inhibiting the growth of bacteria and saprophytic fungi. Macroscopic colony morphology is often used to initially identify the genus of the dermatophyte; identification can be further confirmed by visualizing the microscopic morphology using either a slide culture or a sticky tape prep stained with lactophenol cotton blue.

Various antifungal treatments can be effective against tineas. Allylamine ointments that include terbinafine are commonly used; miconazole and clotrimazole are also available for topical treatment, and griseofulvin is used orally.

  • Why are tineas, caused by fungal molds, often called ringworm?

Disease Profile

Mycoses of the Skin

Cutaneous mycoses are typically opportunistic, only able to cause infection when the skin barrier is breached through a wound. Tineas are the exception, as the dermatophytes responsible for tineas are able to grow on skin, hair, and nails, especially in moist conditions. Most mycoses of the skin can be avoided through good hygiene and proper wound care. Treatment requires antifungal medications. Figure 16.23 summarizes the characteristics of some common fungal infections of the skin.

Figure 16.23 Details associated with tineas, a mycoses of the skin.


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Allied Health Microbiology by Open Stax and Linda Bruslind is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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