Athletes Foot

What is athlete’s foot? 

Athlete’s foot is a contagious fungal infection that typically begins between the toes. The infection is also called tinea pedis. The infection causes an itchy, scaly rash to appear on the feet. While the rash can be treated with antifungal medications, the infection often recurs. The rash is called athlete’s foot because athletes frequently develop the rash since they often have sweaty feet in confined shoes for longer periods of time. 

The condition spreads easily through contaminated surfaces or items, like floors, towels, or clothing. A person can easily catch athlete’s foot from environments like public pools, gyms, and other places with communal areas. Athlete’s foot is a form of ringworm and is related to other fungal infections like jock itch. The rash is very common, affecting roughly 15% to 25% of people. 

What causes athlete’s foot?

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The cause of athlete’s foot is a fungal infection of the toes. A person can either develop the fungus by creating the right conditions for the fungus to grow or by coming into contact with the fungus by touching contaminated floors, towels, or shoes. Ideal conditions for fungal growth are warm, humid environments that often result when you have damp socks in tight-fitting shoes. Once you have athlete’s foot, the infection can spread to other areas of your body if you scratch or pick at your feet. 

Athlete’s foot is commonly found in common areas that are often wet, mainly locker rooms, swimming pools, and saunas. If these areas are not disinfected regularly, you could be at risk for picking up the infection by coming into contact with the shared surfaces. In addition, the fungus can spread through direct contact between two people.

What are symptoms of athlete’s foot?

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The symptoms of athlete’s foot typically begin between the toes or on the foot and can affect one or both feet at a time. You may experience some or all these symptoms, depending on the stage of the infection and your body’s reaction to the infection. 

The most common signs and symptoms of athlete’s foot include:

  • Itchiness after taking off socks and shoes 
  • Discolored and inflamed skin that appears red, purple, or gray 
  • Blisters on the feet and toes that itch
  • Scaly or dry skin that appears between the toes and on the bottom of the foot, extending up the sides 
  • Burning or stinging sensation of the feet
  • Toenails pulling away from the nail bed 
  • Toenails that are thick, crumbly, and possibly discolored 

People may experience other symptoms than the ones listed, but these are the most common signs of athlete’s foot to pay attention to. 

Are there any risk factors or groups for athlete’s foot?

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There are risk factors that make you more likely to develop the foot infection. Some risk factors relate to your health history and others depend on your lifestyle.While athlete’s foot is common among all types of people, the condition tends to affects men more than women and older people more than younger people. 

You are at a higher risk if you:

  • Are a heavy sweater 
  • Wear tight, confined shoes frequently 
  • Walk without shoes in wet, communal areas where infection spreads
  • Come into contact with an item that has been infected, such as towels, clothes, or sheets
  • Frequently have wet or sweaty feet

In addition to these behavioral risk factors, you are also more likely to get athlete’s foot if you:

  • Have an open wound or injury on your foot or nails
  • Have diabetes
  • Are obese
  • Have a weakened immune system

How is athlete’s foot diagnosed?

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A doctor will likely be able to diagnose athlete’s foot by the appearance of the foot and by assessing your symptoms. Since some symptoms of athlete’s foot can resemble other skin conditions like dry skin or dermatitis, your doctor may collect a sample of the affected skin for further confirmation through lab testing. A skin sample also helps the doctor confirm what type of fungus is causing the infection, which helps with developing a treatment plan.  

A common test for athlete’s foot is called a skin lesion potassium hydroxide exam. For this test, the doctor places a sample of the skin in potassium hydroxide that kills normal cells and leaves the fungal cells intact for review under a microscope.

How is athlete’s foot treated?

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There are a variety of at-home remedies, over-the-counter treatments, and prescription medication that can help clear athlete’s foot and address your symptoms. If home and drugstore treatments do not work, your doctor will develop a prescription to clear the infection. 

At-Home Remedies 

At home, you can soak your feet in salt water or a diluted vinegar solution to help dry blisters and reduce itchiness. You can also apply tea tree oil to help manage the infection. 

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Treatments

The drugstore carries effective treatments for athlete’s foot. Typically, OTC medicines come in a lotion, spray, or powder format.  Each option has its own instructions for application and duration of the treatment, so be sure to read the instructions carefully. Common OTC athlete’s foot treatment options include:

  • clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF)
  • butenafine (Lotrimin Ultra)
  • tolnaftate (Tinactin)
  • miconazole (Desenex)
  • terbinafine (Lamisil AT)

Prescription Treatments 

If you do not respond to at-home or OTC options, your doctor may prescribe a topical cream or antifungal pills to help the infection clear. 

Common prescription topical creams include clotrimazole (Lotrisone), econazole (Ecoza, Spectazole), and ciclopirox (Loprox, Penlac). Antifungal pills like terbinafine (Lamisil) and itraconazole (Sporanox, Tolsura) are also common.

Should you see a doctor for athlete’s foot?

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Athlete’s foot is not cause for immediate concern or medical attention. However, if the rash on your foot does not improve after two weeks of treatment, you should see your doctor. Your doctor may need to prescribe a stronger treatment to address the infection. 

Athlete’s foot can be more cause for concern for someone with diabetes, so people with diabetes who suspect they have athlete’s foot should talk to their doctor. In addition, you should seek a doctor if you notice the infection spreading or start to get worse. Since the infection can spread easily, be sure to monitor your symptoms and check for a fever and other signs of more serious infection. 

What is the outlook for people living with athlete’s foot?

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The outlook for people living with athlete’s foot is generally positive, considering the variety of effective treatments to clear the infection and easy preventative measures to avoid future infections. Once you have a treatment plan, be sure to apply the cream or spray according to the instructions and for the full course of days. 

Depending on the severity of the infection, the athlete’s foot should clear without issues. Using best practices to keep your feet clean and dry will help prevent future infection.

What are the complications of athlete’s foot?

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The main complications of athlete’s foot is the spread of the infection to other areas of the body and the potential for the fungal infection to cause a bacterial infection. 

Spread of infection: 

  • Groin: The same fungus that causes athlete’s foot causes jock itch. An athlete’s foot infection can spread to the groin through contact with an infected item like towels or clothes. 
  • Bottom of foot: Called moccasin athlete’s foot, an infection that starts on your toes can spread to the bottom of your foot. You may notice itchy patches of dry skin or blisters in some cases. Over time, the skin on the bottom of the foot becomes thick and begins to crack. Sometimes, the toenails get infected and become brittle and break off. 
  • Hands: Athlete’s foot can easily spread to your hand by itching the affected skin or by using a contaminated towel. 

Bacterial Infection: 

A secondary bacterial infection can result from the fungal athlete’s foot infection. The bacterial infection can become serious if the infection spreads throughout the body. Signs that the body may have a bacterial infection include pus, drainage, fever, and hot spots of swelling on the foot.

How do you prevent athlete’s foot?

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There are great tips to both avoid an athlete’s foot infection and avoid spreading an infection. 

  1. Wash and dry your feet daily and thoroughly. 
  2. Change socks and shoes as they get wet or sweaty.
  3. Wear protective shoes in public places where infections easily spread. 
  4. Don’t share unwashed bedding or towels. 
  5. Disinfect contaminated socks, shoes, towels, or other materials that came into contact with the athlete’s foot.
  6. Air out your feet throughout the day and apply powder to absorb excess moisture.
  7. Wear breathable materials on your feet like cotton or other wicking fabric.
  8. Choose shoes that are not too tight on your feet.

These tips can help you prevent an athlete’s foot infection. However, you may still catch the infection given that it is contagious and easily spread. Practicing good hygiene with your feet can keep your feet protected and less likely to cause a fungal infection.