Systemic antifungal drugs are medicines taken by mouth or by injection to treat infections caused by a fungus.
Systemic antifungal drugs are used to treat infections in various parts of the body that are caused by a fungus. A fungus is a one-celled form of life. Unlike a plant, which makes its own food, or an animal, which eats plants or other animals, a fungus survives by invading and living off other living things. Fungi thrive in moist, dark places, including some parts of the body.
Fungal infections on the skin usually can be treated with creams or ointments (topical antifungal drugs). However, those that occur inside the body or that do not clear up after treatment with creams or ointments may need to be treated with systemic antifungal drugs. These drugs are used, for example, to treat a type of fungal infection called candidiasis also known as thrush or yeast infection), which can occur in the throat, in the vagina, or in other parts of the body. They may also be used to treat fungal infections such as histoplasmosis, blastomycosis, and aspergillosis, which can affect the lungs and other organs. They are sometimes used to prevent or treat fungal infections in people whose immune systems are weakened, such as bone marrow or organ transplant patients and people with AIDS.
Systemic antifungal drugs, such as fluconazole (Diflucan), itraconazole (Sporanox), ketoconazole (Nizoral), and miconazole (Monistat I.V.) are available only by prescription. They are available in tablet, capsule, liquid, and injectable forms.
The recommended dosage depends on the type of antifungal drug and the medical problem for which the drug is being taken. Doses may also be different for different patients. Check with the physician who prescribed the drug or the pharmacist who filled the prescription for the correct dosage. Always take systemic antifungal drugs exactly as directed. Itraconazole and ketoconazole should be taken with food.
Fungal infections can take a long time to clear up, so it may be necessary to take the medicine for several months, or even for a year or longer. It is very important to keep taking the medicine for as long as the physician says to take it, even if symptoms begin to improve. If the drug is stopped too soon, the symptoms may return.
Systemic antifungal drugs work best when the amount of medicine in the body is kept constant. This means that the medicine has to be taken regularly. Try to take the medicine at the same time every day, and do not miss any doses.
Patients taking the liquid form of ketoconazole should use a specially marked medicine spoon or other medicine measuring device to make sure they take the correct amount. A regular household teaspoon may not hold the right amount of medicine. Ask the pharmacists about ways to accurately measure the dose of these drugs.
If symptoms do not improve within a few weeks, check with a physician.
While taking this medicine, visit the physician as often as the physician recommends. The physician needs to keep checking for side effects throughout the antifungal therapy.
Some people feel drowsy or dizzy while taking systemic antifungal drugs. Anyone who takes these drugs should not drive, use machines or do anything else that might be dangerous until they have found out how the drugs affect them.
Liver problems, stomach problems and other problems may occur in people who drink alcohol while taking systemic antifungal drugs. Do not drink alcohol or use any prescription or nonprescription (over-the-counter) medicines that contain alcohol while using this medicine. (Medicines that may contain alcohol include some cough syrups, tonics, and elixirs.) Continue to avoid alcohol for at least a day after you stop taking an antifungal drug.
The antifungal drug ketoconazole may make the eyes unusually sensitive to light. Wearing sunglasses and avoiding exposure to bright light may help.
People with certain medical conditions or who are taking certain other medicines can have problems if they take systemic antifungal drugs. Before taking these drugs, be sure to let the physician know about any of these conditions:
Anyone who has had unusual reactions to systemic antifungal drugs in the past should let his or her physician know about the problem before taking the drugs again. The physician should also be told about any allergies to foods, dyes, preservatives, or other substances.
In laboratory studies of animals, systemic antifungal drugs have caused birth defects and other problems in the mother and fetus. Studies have not been done on pregnant women, so it is not known whether these drugs cause similar effects in people. Women who are pregnant or who plan to become pregnant should check with their physicians before taking systemic antifungal drugs. Any woman who becomes pregnant while taking systemic antifungal drugs should let her physician know immediately.
Systemic antifungal drugs pass into breast milk. Women who are breastfeeding should check with their physicians before using systemic antifungal drugs.
Other medical conditions
People who have medical conditions in which they lack stomach acid (achlorhydria) or have too little stomach acid (hypochlorhydria) should be sure to let their physicians know about their condition before they use a systemic antifungal drug. The medicine may not be absorbed properly in people with these conditions, but there are ways to get around the problem. For example, it may help to take the medicine with an acidic drink, such as a cola. The patient's health care provider can suggest the best way to take the medicine.
Before using systemic antifungal drugs, people with any of these medical problems should also make sure their physicians are aware of their conditions:
- Current or past alcohol abuse
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease.
Use of certain medicines
Taking systemic antifungal drugs with certain other drugs may affect the way the drugs work or may increase the chance of side effects.
Although rare, severe allergic reactions to this medicine have been reported. Call a physician immediately if any of these symptoms develop after taking fluconazole (Diflucan):
- Hives, itching, or swelling
- Breathing or swallowing problems
- Sudden drop in blood pressure
- Abdominal pain.
Ketoconazole has caused anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction) in some people after their first dose. This is a rare reaction.
Systemic antifungal drugs in general
Systemic antifungal drugs may cause serious and possibly life-threatening liver damage. Patients who take these drugs should have liver function tests before they start taking the medicine and as often as their physician recommends while they are taking it. The physician should be notified immediately if any of these symptoms develop:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Yellow skin or eyes
- Unusual fatigue
- Dark urine
- Pale stools.
The most common minor side effects of systemic antifungal drugs are constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headache, drowsiness, dizziness, and flushing of the face or skin. These problems usually go away as the body adjusts to the drug and do not require medical treatment. Less common side effects, such as menstrual problems in women, breast enlargement in men, and decreased sexual ability in men also may occur and do not need medical attention unless they do not improve in a reasonable amount of time.
More serious side effects are not common, but may occur. If any of the following side effects occur, check with the physician who prescribed the medicine immediately:
- Fever and chills
- Skin rash or itching
- High blood pressure
- Pain, redness, or swelling at site of injection (for injectable miconazole).
Other rare side effects are possible. Anyone who has unusual symptoms after taking systemic antifungal drugs should get in touch with his or her physician.
Serious and possibly life-threatening side effects can result if the oral forms of itraconazole or ketoconazole or the injectable formof miconazole are taken with certain drugs. Do not take those types of systemic antifungal drugs with any of the following drugs unless the physician approves of the therapy:
- Astemizole (Hismanal)
- Cisapride (Propulsid)
- Theophylline-containing anti-wheezing medications.
Taking an acid blocker such as cimetidine (Tagamet), famotidine (Pepcid), nizatidine (Axid), omeprazole (Prilosec), or ranitidine (Zantac) at the same time as a systemic antifungal drug may prevent the antifungal drug from working properly. For best results, take the acid blocker at least 2 hours after taking the antifungal drug.
In addition, systemic antifungal drugs may interact with many other medicines. When this happens, the effects of one or both of the drugs may change or the risk of side effects may be greater. Anyone who takes systemic antifungal drugs should let the physician know all other prescription and nonprescription (over-the-counter) medicines he or she is taking. Among the drugs that may interact with systemic antifungaldrugs are:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Birth control pills
- Male hormones (androgens)
- Female hormones (estrogens)
- Medicine for other types of infections
- Muscle relaxants
- Medicine for diabetes, such as tolbutamide (Orinase), glyburide (DiaBeta), and glipizide (Glucotrol)
- Blood-thinning medicine, such as warfarin (Coumadin).
The list above does not include every drug that may interact with systemic antifungal drugs. Be sure to check with a physician or pharmacist before combining systemic antifungal drugs with any other medicine.
- A sweetened liquid that contains alcohol, water, and medicine.
- A developing baby inside the womb.
- A thick, spreadable substance that contains medicine and is meant to be used on the skin, or if an ophthalmic ointment, in the eye.
- A term used to describe a medicine that has effects throughout the body, as opposed to topical drugs that work on the skin. Most medicines that are taken by mouth or by injection are systemic drugs.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.