Athlete’s foot: Defined

OVERVIEW

Athlete’s foot is a skin condition caused by a fungal infection called tinea pedis, which means “ringworm of the foot.”

Athlete’s foot is contagious and transferable through contaminated surfaces like floors or infected people.

This fungal infection develops on the skin of the feet, usually the areas between the toes and the soles of the feet. Athlete’s foot tends to affect people whose feet have become sweaty or damp in tight shoes. The affected part of the skin becomes scaly and dry, which typically causes itching, burning and stinging sensations. In the worst cases, the foot can crack and blister, potentially resulting in a bacterial infection.

SYMPTOMS

Not all skin infections caused by fungi are athlete’s foot. In some cases, athlete’s foot is mistaken for eczema or simply dry skin.

Symptoms of athlete’s foot include the following:

  • Red, dry and scaly skin
  • Itching, burning and stinging sensations
  • Blisters and cracks on the soles of the feet

Athlete’s foot can affect one or both feet. If you have athlete’s foot and touch the affected skin, the fungus can spread to the palm or fingers, underarms and other parts of the body. The fungus also can be passed from person to person through contaminated towels, clothing or floors. When the soles of the feet blister and crack, the risk for bacterial infection increases.

Always wash your hands thoroughly after touching any body part affected by athlete’s foot.

DIAGNOSIS

Doctors often can diagnose athlete’s foot by simply looking at the skin.

If needed, a doctor may suggest a skin culture, which involves taking a scraping or sample of affected skin using a cotton swab. If the doctor cannot diagnose the condition by sight, she might suggest a skin biopsy, in which a piece of skin is removed and examined in the laboratory.

TREATMENTS

woman applying cream to bottom of foot

In most cases, people with athlete’s foot can use over-the-counter antifungal products to treat the infection. These antifungals come in a variety of forms, including ointments, lotions, powders and sprays. Over-the-counter, topical treatments include clotrimazole (brand name Lotrimin) and tolnaftate (brand name Tinactin).

Athlete’s foot usually improves within two weeks. However, the infection can recur (come back) if you are exposed to the fungi. To prevent a recurrence of athlete’s foot, people may use those antifungal products more regularly.

In more severe cases of athlete’s foot, doctors may prescribe stronger medications, such as oral antifungal medications. Oral antifungal medications include fluconazole (brand name Diflucan) and terbinafine (brand name Lamisil).

When you first notice signs of athlete’s foot, keep your feet clean and dry. Don’t forget to wash and dry between your toes, too.

CAUSES

Athlete’s foot is caused by a fungus that thrives in humid and warm areas, often in damp socks or closed-toe shoes.

Athlete’s foot can spread from person to person through direct contact or through contact with contaminated items like clothing, towels or floors. The fungus also can spread to surfaces of swimming pools, locker rooms and shower areas.

GETTING HELP

If you notice a skin rash, you might try home remedies first. Start by keeping your feet clean and dry. If that doesn’t do the trick, over-the-counter creams or sprays may work. If the infection doesn’t improve after two weeks, talk to your doctor. If you notice excessive swelling, redness or cracks, contact your doctor right away. Also talk to your doctor if you have diabetes and think you might have athlete’s foot because foot infections can lead to serious complications like amputation in diabetes patients. 

RELATED INFORMATION

Athlete’s foot occurs in 15 to 25 percent of people at any given time. The infection is more common in men than in women. Certain habits can lead to athlete’s foot. These habits include sharing clothes or towels, walking barefoot in public areas, and wearing damp socks or tight-fitting shoes.

LIVING WITH

If you have athlete’s foot, your doctor may recommend regular use of over-the-counter creams or sprays. If other medications are needed, take them as prescribed. You should also always keep your feet clean and dry. Wash your feet regularly and dry them thoroughly. Pay attention to the areas in between your toes.

You can prevent athlete’s foot in a number of ways:

  • Keep your feet clean, dry and cool
  • Wash and change your socks regularly
  • Wear clean cotton socks
  • Don’t wear the same pair of shoes every day
  • Wear sandals in communal showers, pools and other public areas
  • Wear light shoes that allow air to flow easily
  • Use talcum powder to reduce sweating
  • Have your nails clipped and keep them clean
  • Don’t share shoes, socks or towels