Athlete's Foot

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Introduction

What is athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection of the feet. It most commonly starts in the areas between the toes, especially the outer three toes. But it can affect any part of the foot, including the soles and extending up the sides or on to the tops of the toes and toenails. The medical term for the infection is tinea pedis.

Dermatophytosis is another name for a fungal infection of the skin. Athlete’s foot is the most common dermatophytosis. Other similar infections include jock itch and ringworm. Several types of fungi can cause athlete’s foot. The most common foot fungus is Trichophyton.

Athlete’s foot causes a red, itchy rash that can be dry and scaly. It can also cause burning or stinging on the affected areas. Other athlete’s foot symptoms include sores, cracks and fissures.

Anyone can get athlete’s foot. However, the fungi that cause athlete’s foot thrive in dark, warm, damp environments. Having sweaty feet or wearing tight shoes increases the risk of getting athlete’s foot. It is also contagious and can spread from person to person. Walking barefoot in public areas, such as locker rooms and showers, can spread it. You can also get it from sharing towels and other contaminated items.

Athlete’s foot requires treatment to clear it and prevent its spread to others. In most cases, over-the-counter antifungal medicines will eliminate the fungus. Severe or persistent infections may need prescription-strength medicines. Athlete’s foot home remedies include keeping your feet dry and wearing well-ventilated shoes.

See your doctor if symptoms continue for more than two weeks despite treatment. People with diabetes, nerve damage, or other foot conditions should see their doctor promptly for signs of athlete’s foot.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot and similar fungal infections usually begin within a week or two of exposure to the fungus. Symptoms are most commonly noticeable between the toes, but can spread to involve the whole foot. The infection can even affect the toenails, making them appear yellow, thick or crumbly.Common symptoms of athlete’s foot include:

  • Dry, scaly, red rash

  • Foul odor

  • Itching, burning or stinging between the toes or on the soles

  • Peeling, thickened or cracked skin

  • Sores, blisters or ulcers

  • White, spongy skin between the toes

Athlete’s foot can occur on one or both feet. When it starts on one foot, it easily spreads to the other. This is more likely if you scratch the rash and touch the other foot. You can also spread the infection to your hands by scratching.

There are several types of skin infections that can cause many of the same symptoms. See your doctor if you notice unusual changes to the skin of your feet. In some cases, it may be necessary to see a dermatologist for the correct diagnosis.

Causes

What causes athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection. The most common type of fungus responsible for the infection is Trichophyton. That fungus and other similar fungi thrive in warm and humid environments. They also pass easily through skin contact from one body part to another and from person to person. They can spread through contact with contaminated objects and surfaces as well.

Risk Factors

What are the risk factors for athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot can affect anyone, but several factors increase the risk of developing it. Many of these factors tend to be associated with athletics, hence the name ‘athlete’s foot.’ Risk factors for athlete’s foot include:

  • Being in a warm, humid climate

  • Having excessively sweaty feet

  • Sharing items that touch the feet, such as towels, bath mats, sheets, socks or shoes

  • Walking barefoot on contaminated surfaces, such as public pools, showers, or locker rooms

  • Wearing tight shoes or damp socks for extended periods

Reducing your risk of athlete’s foot

You may be able to lower your risk of athlete’s foot by:

  • Alternating shoe sets every day to allow them to dry completely between each wear and not sharing shoes with others

  • Choosing socks made of natural fibers and changing them often when they become damp

  • Exposing your feet to air as much as possible

  • Using shower shoes, flip flops, or other foot protection in public showers and spaces

  • Washing your feet and completely drying them, especially between the toes, every day

  • Wearing shoes that fit properly and are well-ventilated, especially in warm weather

If you are at risk of developing athlete’s foot, your doctor may recommend a daily foot powder. Using an antifungal powder will keep your feet dry, plus provide medication to prevent fungal infections. Keeping toenails clipped and clean can also help prevent athlete’s foot.

Treatments

How is athlete’s foot treated?

Athlete’s foot treatment requires antifungal medicines, not home remedies. Often, the infection will respond to over-the-counter (OTC) products. OTC antifungals for athlete’s foot come as creams, ointments, powders and sprays. The choice is largely your personal preference. Be sure to follow the package instructions for proper use. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you need help selecting the right product.

Unfortunately, athlete’s foot can be difficult to get rid of and tends to recur. If symptoms persist for more than two weeks, see your doctor. Topical or oral prescription medicines may be necessary to completely clear the infection.

Foot hygiene is an important part of healing and preventing a recurrence. The same self-care strategies that can reduce your risk of athlete’s foot can also help you cure the infection and keep your feet healthy. Feet need to remain as clean and dry as possible during treatment. Your doctor may also recommend soaks in Burow solution or another drying agent while you heal.

Complications

What are the potential complications of athlete’s foot?

While it can take time, most cases of athlete’s foot clear with proper treatment. However, you can spread the fungus to other body parts, including your hands and groin. Scratching or picking at your feet is the most common way of transferring the fungus to other places. Contaminated items, such as towels, are another way of spreading the infection.

The fungus can also infect your nails, which is more difficult to treat. It is also possible to develop a secondary bacterial infection from scratching. See a dermatologist if you have repeated fungal infections or your infection does not go away with treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Dec 20
  1. Athlete’s Foot. American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. https://www.foothealthfacts.org/conditions/athlete-s-foot 
  2. Athlete’s Foot. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/athletes-foot/symptoms-causes/syc-20353841 
  3. Athlete’s Foot (Tinea Pedis). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/disease/athletes_foot.html 
  4. How to Prevent Athlete’s Foot. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/diseases/a-z/prevent-athletes-foot 
  5. Noble SL, Forbes RC, Stamm PL. Diagnosis and management of common tinea infections. Am Fam Physician. 1998 Jul 1;58(1):163-174.
  6. Overview of Dermatophytoses. Merck Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic-disorders/fungal-skin-infections/overview-of-dermatophytoses 
  7. Ringworm. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/contagious-skin-diseases/ringworm 
  8. Tinea Pedis. Merck Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic-disorders/fungal-skin-infections/tinea-pedis 
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