Under My Skin

Fungal failure


Two months ago I met Ed, still working at age 71. “My life’s ambition,” he said, “has been to help high school science teachers do their jobs better.”

Dr. Alan Rockoff, a dermatologist in Brookline, Mass.

Dr. Alan Rockoff

“How’s it going?” I asked.

Ed sighed. “I’m still at it,” he said. “Let’s just say we’re not there yet.”

I too, dear colleagues, have had a life’s ambition, secret until right now: I wanted to eliminate erroneous fungal diagnosis. Or, to put it more pungently, to help nondermatologists stop treating every roundish scaly rash as ringworm.

Alas, like Ed’s, my work is not yet done.

I get reminders of this all the time, but last week the evidence got so overwhelming that I had to take a breath to settle down. And a nip. Ten cases. In 24 hours.

1. A 66-year-old woman energetically smeared econazole cream twice daily for weeks for an itchy, lichenified rash on both dorsal feet and ankles. Switched to betamethasone. Cleared in 5 days.

2. A 48-year-old woman with scaly patches on both legs. No response to terbinafine cream, then to ketoconazole cream, then to oral fluconazole. Cleared promptly on triamcinolone.

3. A 26-year-old with an erosive vulvar rash lasting month, unresponsive to Nystatin. After 5 days on a steroid, it was gone.

4. A 45-year-old man with lots of dermatoheliosis and idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis on arms and legs. No luck with topical selenium sulfide for tinea versicolor.

5. A 42-year-old nurse treated for weeks with topical antifungals. She came in with globs of fungus cream sealed in with Tegaderm (to prevent spread). Her roommates wanted to cancel her lease. Cleared of both rash and Tegaderm in 1 week. Now allowed to touch doorknobs.

6. A 27-year-old man with 8 weeks of lichenified patches all over his torso. Antifungal creams not working. Steroids do!

7. A 25-year-old recent émigré from India, where he was treated for his itchy groin rash with a succession of antifungal creams. He cannot sleep. (Imagine the plane trip from Delhi!) Has lichenified inguinal folds and scrotum. Cleared in 1 week with a topical steroid.

8. A 22-year-old woman with widespread atopic dermatitis. No response to antifungals. She had a rash at age 2 that was called “allergy to shampoo.” Clears promptly on a steroid.

9. A 22-year-old man being treated for a scaly, bilateral periocular rash with oral cephalexin. Clears promptly on a weak topical steroid.

10. A 29-year-old woman who has been suffering for months with “sensitivity” of her vulvar skin that has been diagnosed and treated as “a yeast infection,” in the absence of any rash or discharge. Her only visible finding is inverse psoriasis in the gluteal cleft. Guess what clears her up?

And so it goes, and so it has gone, week after week, year after year, decade after decade. Medicine scales Olympus: genomics, immunotherapy, stereotactic surgery. Meantime, the it’s-not-a-fungus problem seems impervious to both education and even to daily observation as obvious as it is ineffective: If a supposed fungus does not respond to antifungal treatment, then it must be a very bad fungus. If it doesn’t respond to yet another antifungal cream, then it must be terrible fungus. Reconsidering that it may not be a fungus at all seems to demand a mental paradigm shift whose achievement will have to await a more discerning generation.

In the meantime, patients not only don’t get better, but they feel defiled and dirty. They avoid human contact, intimate and otherwise, and do a lot of superfluous and expensive cleaning of house and wardrobe. If you doubt this, ask them. If you think I overstate, spend a day with me.

Early in my career I inherited the once-yearly dermatology slot at Medical Grand Rounds at the local community hospital. I spoke about cutaneous fungus, with emphasis on the fact that lots of round rashes are nummular eczema rather than fungus, as well as what it means to patients to be told they are “fungal.”

I didn’t get much direct feedback, but the chief of medicine sprang into action. He canceled the dermatology slot. Not medical enough, I guess.

Ed tells me that many high school science teachers don’t know much science. They teach it because they thought they might like to, or because there was an opening. After Ed hangs up his cleats, there will be plenty of his work left to be done.

But then, there always is.

Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass., and is a longtime contributor to Dermatology News. He serves on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and has taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. His second book, “Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient,” is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Write to him at dermnews@mdedge.com.

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