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Athlete’s Foot: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment

Reviewed by
Dr. Mark Landsman

Athlete’s foot is a contagious fungal and bacterial infection that occurs on the feet, usually between the toes (typically the fourth and fifth toes), on the soles, or on the sides of the foot.

It can cause the feet to itch, burn, and become dry and flaky, and can cause discomfort as the condition spreads and worsens over time. Athlete’s foot is medically known as tinea pedis, or ringworm of the feet.

Athlete’s foot is so named because many sufferers are athletes, who spent a lot of their time sweating and going into public showers, gyms, locker rooms, and other damp, warm places. But you don’t have to be an athlete to suffer from athlete’s foot.

Fungi thrive in warm, damp places. Our shoes are a perfect example. During warmer weather, doctors see an increase in athlete’s foot.

Athlete’s Foot Symptoms To Pay Attention To

Athlete’s foot is said by sufferers to begin with a mild itching sensation. As the condition persists, scales begin to form in the same area. The scales are usually soft, moist, and either red or grayish-white in color.

In most cases they begin to form around the toes, but they have also been known to appear on the sides of the feet, on the heels, or on the soles. Occasionally blisters develop on the feet. Some athlete’s foot sufferers say their feet smell damp and moldy.

Athlete's Foot

Call your doctor immediately if you are experiencing these symptoms, which may be signs the infection is spreading:

  • Your foot is swollen and warm to the touch
  • There are red streaks throughout the swollen areas
  • Pus or discharge is present
  • Fever

Athlete’s foot can sometimes spread to the hands and face, but these cases are extremely rare. Diabetics need to be extremely aware of the health of their feet. If you have diabetes and contract athlete’s foot, you should contact your doctor immediately.

Why Do I Have Athlete’s Foot?

This condition is usually caused by a fungus and bacterial infection, which is spread by direct contact with someone who is already infected. Athlete’s foot can also be caused by:

  • Being in contact with warm, damp places
  • Sweating a lot
  • Wearing closed shoes, especially ones with plastic linings
  • Poor hygiene, including not washing feet properly or wearing dirty socks
  • Not drying feet after being in contact with water
  • Keeping feet wet for long periods of time
  • Constantly using locker rooms, public showers, or gyms
  • History of atopic eczema
  • People with weak immune systems
  • Illness
  • Medications

All the items listed above increase the risk for developing athlete’s foot. For example, if you don’t regularly wash your feet with soap and water, or if you do not wash your socks every time you wear them, you are at a higher risk for developing athlete’s foot.

Also, if you frequent public places that require you to be barefoot even for a moment—for example, if you change in a locker room or use a public shower—you are increasing your chances of developing this condition.

Additional risks that may increase your chances of contracting athlete’s foot include:

  • Living in hot, humid weather
  • Persistent moisture around your feet
  • An immune-system problem due to illness or medications
  • Inherent susceptibility

Diagnosing Athlete’s Foot – What to Expect When Visiting Your Doctor

Some people feel they can diagnose themselves with athlete’s foot, but most foot doctors would rather you make an appointment to see them before self medicating.

If you are experiencing any symptoms of athlete’s foot, let your doctor know immediately. He or she will probably take samples of the scales to test in a laboratory to rule out other skin conditions.

Your doctor should be able to diagnose you properly upon examining your skin sample. If your doctor feels tests are needed, they may include one or more of the following:

  • Skin culture: Doctors take samples of fungi and skin from the patient and grow them in their lab.
  • Skin lesion biopsy: Scrapings of skin are taken and examined under a microscope.
  • Skin lesion KOH exam: KOH is the forumula for potassium hydroxide in liquid form. This exam uses scrapes of lesions that are placed in the KOH and examined under a microscope.

How Is Athlete’s Foot Treated?

Your foot doctor will know the best treatment options for you. He or she may recommend the following treatment and prevention methods:

  • Medications may be prescribed, such as Griseofulvin, Terbinafine (e.g. Lamisil AT), Miconazole (e.g. Micatin), Clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF), Tolnaftate (Tinactin) or Ketoconazole
  • Daily washing of the feet
  • Thorough drying of the feet after contact with water or warm, damp places
  • After drying feet, carefully remove scales and material between the toes each day
  • Use a blow dryer to ensure they are completely dry
  • Antifungal medication, either topical or oral, prescribed or nonprescription strength depending on the severity of your problem
  • Continue use of these products for one to two weeks after the infection clears up, or follow your doctor’s instructions
  • Wearing dry, airy shoes and socks
  • Not borrowing footwear from others
  • Avoiding tight hosiery or socks
  • Foot powder to keep feet dry

Although medical care is typically not needed to treat this condition, you should always talk with a professional about home treatment methods.

You may begin to see relief within days. It’s very important that you seek help from a foot doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of athlete’s foot. Your doctor will be able to help you treat the condition and prevent it from reappearing.

Constant awareness is also important. If your routine activities put you at higher risk for athlete’s foot, you may need to learn to incorporate preventive measures into your daily routine. Athlete’s foot and other fungal infections can be stubborn at times.

Occasionally, the problem can become chronic. Again, this is why it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as symptoms of athlete’s foot appear. In most cases, treatment is successful within three weeks.

Can Athlete’s Foot Be Prevented?

There are several things you can do to prevent athlete’s foot from occurring:

  • Bathe your feet every day and dry them completely between the toes
  • Apply a drying or dusting powder if you have sweaty feet
  • Wear rubber or wooden sandals when using public showers, pools, locker rooms, etc.
  • Avoid synthetic materials. Wear socks made of cotton, wool, or other natural, absorbent fibers, especially in hot, humid weather
  • Air out your shoes between uses
  • Stop using old, worn-out shoes
  • Change your socks every day, especially in warm weather
  • Avoid walking barefoot in public places, especially on surfaces on which fungus often grows
  • Do not share towels or nail clippers with someone who has athlete’s foot
  • In warm weather, wear open shoes such as sandals, or shoes made of breathable materials
  • While at home, go barefoot in order to air your feet out

To prevent this condition from recurring, avoid activities that may make your feet sweaty during the healing process.

You should not need to change your diet to treat or prevent this condition, but you may want to watch your pets for fur loss. If you see fur loss, take your pet to the vet immediately.

Complications of Athlete’s Foot That May Develop

There are a few complications that may arise if you suffer from this condition, including:

  • Skin rash may develop on the hands and face (this is very rare)
  • A secondary bacterial infection may develop in the affected area
  • Recurrence of condition
  • Systemic side effects of medications
  • Lymphangitis (infection of the lymph glands, typically in response to bacteria, fungus, or viruses)
  • Cellulitis

Talking Your Doctor

Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor about athlete’s foot:

  • Based on my activities, how likely is this condition to recur?
  • Why are my feet sweating so much?
  • Can I bring my shoes in to our next appointment so you can verify that they are the right type of shoe for me?
  • Is it okay for me to wear socks at night to keep my feet warm?
  • Which over-the-counter antifungal powder do you recommend?
  • What temperature should my bathwater be?

Medical References:

    H. Winter Griffith, MD "Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness & Surgery" (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2006) 163 American Medical Association "Family Medical Guide" 4th Edition (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2004) 123; 1073 Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 21 edition (F.A. Davis Company, 2005) 2324-2325 M. Beers "Merck Manual of Medical Information" 2nd home edition (Pocket Books, 2003) 1225

This page was last updated on October 2nd, 2015

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