An introduction to barber's itch
Barber’s itch is a fungal skin condition that is sometimes classified as beard ringworm. It usually affects the bearded area of the face, including the chin, neck and upper lip.1 Symptoms begin to occur when the fungal spores on the surface of our skin are given the correct surroundings to multiply.
This prolific overgrowth leads to spores eating away at our dead skin cells, triggering an adverse reaction on our skin in the form of rashes, dry skin, itching and blistering.
The infection, also known as tinea barbae, gets its name from how the condition used to be spread during the age of Sweeney Todd barber shops. Barber’s would frequently use the same razor for each of their customers, leading to rampant outbreaks of the fungal infection during that time period.
Due to the nature of the condition, it most commonly occurs in adult males more than any other demographic. The disease can also be contracted from animals, making people who work with animals – vets, farmers, etc. – more likely to catch the infection.
The causes of barber's itch
Barber’s itch is highly contagious can be spread from person to person through direct or indirect contact with an affected party.
There are a variety of culprits to consider when pointing the finger of blame at a particular causal factory – your lifestyle, diet and even your pre-existing health conditions can make you vulnerable and more susceptible to catching the affliction.
- Weak immune system: Your immune system is responsible for protecting you against invading pathogens or potential threats. When this vital part of your body is underdeveloped, damaged or stressed, then you become more vulnerable to infections and bad bacteria finds it easier to enter your body. Pre-existing health complaints such as diabetes, obesity, stress or hyperthyroidism can weaken your immune system and make it easier for you to contract a fungal infection. This is because your immune system will become sluggish, less able to protect your skin against the candida yeast and more vulnerable to the nasty waste products that the candida yeast can emit in your gut. It’s very important that you take care of yourself and try to support your immune system in whatever way possible
- Poor nutrition: What you eat can influence your fungal infection symptoms, even potentially exacerbating your infection. If you follow an unhealthy diet that is high in sugary, fatty or processed foods then this will increase the levels of bad bacteria in your gut, weakening your digestive system and placing you at risk from an overgrowth of fungal yeast in your intestines. If you are already suffering from barber’s itch then it would be worthwhile cutting these foods out of your diet and instead concentrating on food products that can give your immune system a boost or contain anti-fungal properties
- Stress: Stress can exhaust your immune system, making you more vulnerable to contracting a fungal infection like barber’s itch. When you experience stress it can trigger a response from your sympathetic nervous system, making your immune system believe that you are in a life-threatening situation. This will then prompt the release of inflammatory chemicals, such as histamine and adrenalin, to dilate your blood vessels and raise your blood pressure. These inflammatory chemicals can also raise your blood sugar levels, providing the candida yeast with plenty of food and potentially exaggerating your physical symptoms. Not only can stress harm the immune system though – it can also have a detrimental impact on your digestion, liver function and skin cells
- Poor hygiene: Hygiene should be at the forefront of how you go about your day to day lives. The bad bacteria on your skin flourishes when it is presented with damp, enclosed condition, making you more likely to contract either a bacterial or fungal skin infection. If you wash yourself every day and take care to dry yourself correctly, then it can prevent the spread of fungal infections
- Direct contact: If you are directly interacting with people or animals that have fungal infections, then you are running a high risk of catching the infection yourself. Skin on skin contact will cause the disease to choose you as its new host, making it crucial that you avoid potential contagions – if you suspect that your pet has the condition, then get them treat as soon as possible
- Indirect contact: Be careful who you share your razors with. Fungal infections can live on in everyday objects like razors, face cloths and clothing so it might pay to be a bit more frugal about who you share your belongings with. If you have the infection already, sterilise your razors and wash your linen, towels and clothing after use so you can kill the fungal spores living and breeding on these materials
- Soil: The candida strain of fungi responsible for fungal infections like barber’s itch, can sometimes live on in soil and permeate your skin through touch. If you are in a job that involves regular contact with the great outdoors or you simply enjoy gardening, it might be worthwhile wearing protective clothing and taken preventative measures to minimalise the possibility of catching the skin infection.
The symptoms of barber's itch
The symptoms of barber’s itch can be very unpleasant to experience, often making us feel uncomfortable and very self-conscious.
It is important that if your symptoms worsen or you notice other signs such as a fever, you speak to your doctor as soon as possible to avoid complications such as cellulitis or in the worst case scenario, septicaemia.
- Hair loss: Fungal spores feed on keratin, a compound integral to the structure of hair follicles. This can often weaken hair and sometimes even cause it to fall out. You may notice bald patches appearing on your beard, but after treatment, any lost hair should grow back
- Ringworm rashes: Barber’s itch is also known as beard ringworm, characterised by the red circular rashes that can sometimes break out across the skin of sufferers. These do not always occur with barber’s itch, but it is quite common for them to appear, usually on the cheeks, or neck of the patient
- Itching: Itching is almost an automatic reaction that we have when our skin is irritated or dry. However, scratching away at infected skin may only serve to aggravate your symptoms further, and can actually aid the spreading of the infection
- Dry, flaky skin: Barber’s itch can make our skin drier and cracked, allowing for bacteria to permeate the skin membranes and trigger further adverse reactions.
- Inflammation: Inflammation occurs in our skin when our immune system attempts to fight back against invading pathogens and heal any irritation or wounds
- Blistering: In barber’s itch, large blisters often appear that sometime contain pus. These should not be scratched or touched, however if they start to bleed you should consult your GP as soon as possible
- Discolouration of skin: Fungal spores can affect the pigmentation of our skin, making it appear paler in certain areas, such as around the outside and inside of a ringworm rash. This discolouration is classified as tinea versicolour, and it is normally clears once the fungal infection has been successfully treated
- Stress: Stress is a common experience in many instances of skin infections, however you should try to find ways of lowering your stress levels as anxiety and emotional distress can often exaggerate your physical symptoms.
There are plenty of home remedies and lifestyle tips aimed at reducing your chances of contracting a fungal skin infection. If you feel as though your symptoms are persisting, please do not hesitate to speak to your doctor about further treatments.
- Relax: Getting plenty of rest and relaxation is important when it comes to lowering your stress levels. Try to set aside a certain amount of time each day for yourself, whether that involves you reading a good book or catching up on your favourite television programme. You could even try taking up yoga or meditation as both promote positive practices for soothing your body and mind as well as proper breathing techniques
- Good nutrition: Your diet can influence the strength of your immune system so it is important to include plenty of foods rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Some foods, such as garlic and onions, contain a compound known as allicin, which has natural anti-fungal properties. Ingesting these types of foods can reduce the level of yeast in your body, making your symptoms more bearable. It might also be an idea to try and get more vitamin A and vitamin E rich foods into your diet, as these can encourage the growth of healthy skin tissues and support your immune system. You could try and include healthy smoothies into your daily routine or snack on fruit throughout the day rather than chocolate. If you find that you’re still craving a cup of coffee in the morning, it might be an idea to try our coffee substitute, Bambu, which is entirely natural and contains no inflammatory caffeine
- Good Hygiene: You should be washing every day, regardless of any skin conditions or health complaints. An excessive amount of sweat on our skins can influence the production of bad bacteria. When we wash, we reduce the levels of sweat on our skin; however we should also be drying ourselves thoroughly as well. Dampness can lead to the growth of fungal spores, so it is a good idea to dry your skin carefully after washing.
- Avoid contagions: If you know someone who is infected, or have a pet that is suffering from ringworm, then it might be worthwhile avoiding them until their infection has cleared up. This might seem a bit harsh, especially if it means isolating yourself from your friends, but barber’s itch is highly contagious. If you have a dog or a cat that has the skin condition, then you should get treatment for them as soon as possible to avoid your faithful friend from suffering unnecessarily and from passing the disease on to you.
- Wear protective clothing: If you work in a job where contact with potential contagions is unavoidable, then you should try to wear protective clothing. For example, if you are a life guard wear sandals and take care to shower after you finish work every day, or if you work in agriculture, wear gloves or a face mask to guard yourself against animals that might harbour the illness
- Garlic: As we have already mentioned, garlic has natural anti-fungal properties and can kill fungal spores. You don’t necessarily have to digest garlic either; you can apply it topically to the affected or take it in the form of a supplement. If you are applying garlic topically, make sure you apply it to the affected area as a diluted paste. Or, if you wish to try a supplement, you could try Allicin max, which contains extracts of allicin, the compound that gives garlic its anti-fungal qualities.
- Yoghurt: Plain unflavoured yoghurt contains good bacteria that actively fight against yeast, reducing the amount of fungal spores in our system
- Herbal teas: Herbal teas are very beneficial for a variety of reasons, however when it comes to fighting fungal infections, there are certain types of herbal tea that work well against fungal spores. Ginger and chamomile tea contain natural anti-fungal properties, as well as liquorice and goldenseal tea. These can be ingested or applied topically to the affected areas, frequently throughout the day.2
There are a number of herbal remedies that can be used to treat the symptoms of a fungal infection such as barber’s itch. It is essential though, that if your symptoms show no sign of improvement within a couple of weeks, that you speak to your doctor in order to avoid further complications.
- Neem cream: Neem has been used in herbal medicine for centuries, often being recommended for dry, brittle skin conditions. Neem Cream is made using extracts of neem leaves and can work to soothe any irritating external symptoms. Just be aware that the solution is not suitable for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, and should not be taken by those that suffer from nut allergies
- Molkosan®: It’s estimated that around 70% of your immune cells are found in your gut. Molkosan® can be taken in conjunction with Spilanthes, and it works to increase the amount of friendly bacteria in your gut, which can in turn regulate the production of yeast, reducing your vulnerability to a fungal infection as well as easing your existing symptoms
- Echinaforce®: Echinaforce® is made from extracts of Echinacea and can be taken to strengthen the immune system. This remedy may not help to treat your external symptoms but it can help you to maintain a proper immune function. Echinaforce can be taken by anyone over the age of 12 but is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women
- Spilanthes: Spilanthes works to soothe the external symptoms whilst influencing the levels of yeast in our digestive tract. It is normally taken as a tincture and is harvested from the Spilanthes flowering herb.
If you feel that home and herbal remedies are not adequately treating your symptoms, then it might be worth pursuing the path of conventional medicines.
- Anti-fungal creams: Anti-fungal creams are usually the first recommended to sufferers of a fungal infection. These can be bought over the counter in your local pharmacy and are topically applied to the infected area. If your symptoms still show no signs of improvement though, you should speak to your doctor and they may be able to prescribe you some stronger anti-fungal medications
- Steroid cream: Steroid creams are a step up from pharmacy bought anti-fungal creams but they should not be taken consistently for more than ten days. This is because steroid creams can trigger a range of nasty side-effects, which on top of your existing symptoms might make you more vulnerable to other infections and complications
- Anti-fungal tablets: Anti-fungal tablets have to be prescribed to you by your doctor, and are taken orally to help fight against the overgrowth of fungi in your system. However, these tablets should be taken as directed to you by your doctor and if you notice any unusual side-effects, you should go back and talk to your doctor again as they may be able to put you on another brand of anti-fungal medication.