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Antifungal medicines

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Antifungals are a category of medication that stops the growth of fungi that cause infections. Simple treatments can include over-the-counter topical medication but more complex treatments can involve prescription tablets, creams or other methods. Although antifungals are all one topic, they can be subcategorized into different types – we’ll go through this in more detail below.

Doctor’s advice

Types of antifungals

The most commonly used type of antifungal is known as the 'azole' group. These work to kill the fungus by disrupting the production of important components needed for its cell membrane and are the active ingredients in most over-the-counter medications you can buy to treat fungal conditions.

The second type of antifungals are the 'polyenes' group. These work by killing fungal cells by making the fungal cell wall more likely to break apart and are used for a wider range of harder-to-treat fungal infections. The other types of antifungals are used more sparingly for more complex cases.

Topical antifungals

Depending on the treatment required, the antifungal formulation can vary. There are many topical formulations available to buy over the counter for treating simple fungal infections. Lacquer and gel pens are used to treat simple nail fungal infections, oral gels are available for treating thrush in the mouth and formulations are available for treating vaginal thrush.

Creams, ointments, and powders are used to treat fungal infections limited to the surface of the skin. If the infection spreads to the layers below the skin and into the body, it needs to be treated with systemic therapy (oral) which is only available on prescription. There are also different topical medications that are only available with a prescription from your doctor.

Tablet antifungals

Tablet antifungals are taken orally (by mouth) to treat fungal infections. They can be prescribed by a doctor when topical (creams and washes) antifungals don’t clear up the infection, or if a tablet is believed to be the best way to target the area of the infection. In certain cases, if the infection is severe or widespread or internal, then oral antifungals may be prescribed first-line by your doctor.

Are there any side effects?

When considering using an over-the-counter antifungal treatment, it’s very important to make sure the treatment is suitable for you and that you don’t have any specific reasons to avoid the medication – if you’re unsure, speak to your pharmacist or doctor for advice.

In terms of side effects, there are fewer side effects with topical treatments as only a small amount enters the body, with the most common side effect usually being mild irritation around the affected area of skin.

With tablets, the side effects can be more serious and so taking fungal tablets requires regular monitoring such as blood tests to check that your liver is working normally. Common side effects of systemic treatments include a loss of appetite, pain in your joints or muscles and an upset stomach.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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