What Is Athlete’s Foot?
Athlete’s foot — also called tinea pedis — is
a contagious fungal infection that affects the skin on the feet and can spread
to the toenails and sometimes the hands. The fungal infection is called
athlete’s foot because it’s commonly seen in athletes.
Athlete’s foot isn’t serious, but sometimes
it’s hard to cure. However, if you have diabetes or a weakened immune system
and suspect that you have athlete’s foot, you should call your doctor
What Causes Athlete’s Foot?
Athlete’s foot occurs when the tinea fungus
grows on the feet. You can catch the fungus through direct contact with an
infected person or by touching surfaces contaminated with the fungus. The
fungus thrives in warm, moist environments and is commonly found in showers, on
locker room floors, and around swimming pools.
Who Is at Risk for Athlete’s Foot?
Anyone can get athlete’s foot, but certain
behaviors increase your risk. Factors that increase your risk of getting athlete’s
- visiting public places barefoot,
especially locker rooms, showers, and swimming pools
- sharing socks, shoes, or towels
with an infected person
- wearing tight-fitting, closed-toe
- keeping your feet wet for long
periods of time
- having sweaty feet
- having a minor skin or nail
injury on your foot
What Are the Symptoms of Athlete’s Foot?
There are many possible symptoms of athlete’s
foot. You may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- itching, stinging, and burning
between the toes
- itching, stinging, and burning on
the soles of the feet
- blisters on the feet that itch
- cracking and peeling skin on the
feet, most commonly between the toes and on the soles
- dry skin on the soles or sides of
- raw skin on the feet
- discolored, thick, and crumbly
- toenails that pull away from the
How Is Athlete’s Foot Diagnosed?
A doctor may diagnose athlete’s foot by the
symptoms alone or may order a skin test if they aren’t sure if a fungal
infection is causing your symptoms.
A skin lesion potassium hydroxide (KOH) exam
is the most common test for athlete’s foot. A doctor scrapes off a small area
of infected skin and places it in potassium hydroxide (KOH). The KOH destroys
normal cells and leaves the fungal cells untouched so they are easy to see
under a microscope.
How Is Athlete’s Foot Treated?
Athlete’s foot can often be treated with
over-the-counter (OTC) topical antifungal medications. If OTC medications don’t
successfully treat the fungal infection, your doctor may prescribe topical or
oral prescription-strength antifungal medications. Your doctor may also
recommend home treatments to help clear up the infection.
There are many OTC topical antifungal medications,
- miconazole (Desenex)
- terbinafine (Lamisil AT)
- clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF)
- butenafine (Lotrimin Ultra)
- tolnaftate (Tinactin)
Some of the prescription medications your
doctor may prescribe for athlete’s foot include:
- topical, prescription-strength
clotrimazole or miconazole
- oral antifungal medications such
as itraconazole (Sporanox), fluconazole (Diflucan), or prescription-strength terbinafine
- topical steroid medications to
reduce painful inflammation
- oral antibiotics if bacterial
infections develop due to raw skin and blisters
Your doctor may recommend that you soak your
feet in salt water or diluted vinegar to help dry up blisters.
Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) has
been used as an alternative therapy for treating athlete’s foot with some
success. A scientific study published in the August 2002 issue of the Australian Journal of Dermatology reported that a 50 percent
solution of tea tree oil effectively treated athlete’s foot in 64 percent of
Ask your doctor if a tea tree oil solution
can help your athlete’s foot. Tea tree oil can cause skin dermatitis in some
Athlete’s foot can lead to complications in
Mild complications include an allergic
reaction to the fungus, which can lead to blistering on the feet or hands. It’s
also possible for the fungal infection to return after treatment.
There can be more severe complications if a
secondary bacterial infection develops. If this is the case, your foot might be
swollen, painful, and hot. Pus, drainage, and fever are additional signs of a
It’s also possible for the bacterial
infection to spread to the lymph system. A skin infection could lead to
lymphangitis (infection of the lymph vessels) or lymphadenitis (infection of
the lymph nodes).
Athlete’s foot infections can be mild or
severe. Some clear up quickly, and others last a long time. Athlete’s foot
infections generally respond well to antifungal treatment. However, sometimes
fungal infections are difficult to eliminate. Long-term treatment with
antifungal medications may be necessary to keep athlete’s foot infections from
There are several things you can do to help
prevent athlete’s foot infections. These include:
- wash your feet with soap and
water every day and dry them thoroughly, especially between the toes
- put antifungal powder on your
- don’t share socks, shoes, or
towels with others
- wear sandals in public showers,
around public swimming pools, and in other public places
- wear socks made out of breathable
fibers, such as cotton or wool, or made out of synthetic fibers that wick
moisture away from your skin
- change your socks when your feet
- air out your feet when you are at
home by going barefoot
- wear shoes made of breathable
- alternate between two pairs of
shoes, wearing each pair every other day, to give your shoes time to dry out