Despite its name, athletes aren’t the only people who can get athlete’s foot. In fact, up to 70% of the population will experience athlete’s foot at some point in their life. Also known as tinea pedis, athlete’s foot is a contagious fungal infection that usually starts between the toes. This condition can occur when tight-fitting shoes cause the feet to sweat, leading to a fungal infection.
Athlete’s foot is easily recognized by the common symptoms such as itching, stinging, blistering, scaling and a burning rash. While the condition can be treated with over-the-counter, anti-fungal medication or with a prescription, some cases are reoccurring. Prevention is key to eliminating athlete’s foot for good. Knowing the cause, how to avoid it, and how to recognize this problem in its earliest stages can help people avoid ongoing problems.
This guide will discuss the symptoms and causes of athlete’s foot, along with the different types, risk factors, treatments, and when to see a doctor. This information can help someone take care of their feet and avoid problems that can lead to a very uncomfortable infection.
Table of Contents
- What Causes Athlete’s Foot?
- Athlete’s Foot Diagnosis
- Types of Athlete’s Foot
- Risk Factors
- Athlete’s Foot Treatment
- When to See a Doctor
- How to Prevent Athlete’s Foot from Spreading in the Laundry
- Myths About Athlete’s Foot
- If You Think You Have Athlete’s Foot, Seek Treatment Immediately
What Causes Athlete’s Foot?
Athlete’s foot is usually caused by dermatophytes, a type of fungus that feeds on keratin, the protein found in skin, nails and hair. Occasionally, athlete’s foot is caused by non-dermatophytes like yeast, although this is rare. Dermatophytes are the same type of fungus that cause ringworm and jock itch.
This contagious fungus is spread through physical contact between people, soil, and animals. People can get athlete’s foot by sharing a towel with someone who is infected, by walking on infected soil, or by showering in a shower also used by someone who is actively infected.
Sweaty feet create conditions that are optimal for growth of athlete’s foot. Tight-fitting shoes also contribute to the development of the fungus. However, anyone can get athlete’s foot if they’re exposed to the fungus.
Some people are more at risk for this condition than others. People with open sores on their feet are more susceptible, as are people with diabetes. Walking barefoot, borrowing shoes and using public showers without shoes can all lead to an infection.
Athlete’s Foot Diagnosis
People who have had athlete’s foot in the past and who are familiar with the symptoms can sometimes diagnose their own condition without seeing a doctor. However, if someone has never had athlete’s foot and is unfamiliar with the experience, they should see their physician to get an accurate diagnosis.
Their doctor may be able to diagnose the condition on sight without performing a test, or they may still perform a test to rule out other conditions. To perform the test, a doctor will scrape a person’s skin with a sharp blade, then perform a fungal culture on the collected skin cells. This test is called a KOH test. A negative test indicates that a person may or may not have athlete’s foot. The fungus that causes athlete’s foot is difficult to isolate, so false negatives are common.
Test results may come back the same day, or they may take longer, depending on the physician’s lab and their work flow. Athlete’s foot is not an emergency, so someone may need to wait a day or more to get their results.
While waiting for a diagnosis, avoid contact with others. Do not share shoes, go barefoot in the shower, share towels with family members or walk around barefoot.
Types of Athlete’s Foot
Some athlete foot infections have symptoms of red, blistery rashes, while other rashes become thick and scaly. Different types of athlete’s foot can appear in different places on the foot and also display different symptoms. These rashes must be treated differently.
A doctor can help someone decide which type of treatment is right for their particular form of the condition. Some types of athlete’s foot can have serious consequences, so it’s important to receive the right medication.
Toe Web Infection
Toe web infection, more formally known as chronic interdigital athlete’s foot, is the most common type of athlete’s foot. This is the kind of athlete’s foot that is commonly spread through locker rooms, college dorms and in public showers.
If someone is suffering from toe web infection, the first place they will notice a problem will be in the space between the fourth and fifth toes (the pinky toe and the toe next to it). Common symptoms of toe web infection are scaling of the skin and fissures in the space between the toes. The skin may smell, be red and peeling or have discharge. If the condition is very bad, the skin may turn from red to green.
This type of infection is often worsened by a secondary bacterial infection, which can cause a more severe problem that extends to other parts of the foot.
Doctors state that wearing tight shoes can make toe web infection worse, especially if the shoes do not breathe well. Unfortunately, patients report that the itching and burning may get worse when the socks and shoes are removed. Doctor can help find solutions to toe web infection that will not worsen the condition and will help relieve symptoms.
Caused by a dermatophyte called Trichophyton rubrum, moccasin infection causes the skin on the sole of the foot to become scaly and dry. Moccasin infection covers the sole of the foot but can spread to the heel and side of the foot. The scales on the skin from this kind of condition can be very silvery and fine. Underneath, the skin will feel tender and appear bright pink or red.
This type of athlete’s foot can also infect the hands. Usually, people who suffer from this condition will observe it on either two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand. Fungal nail infections can lead to a resurgence of infection, so people who struggle with this problem may have issues on and off for months or years. This condition is more common in people suffering from asthma and eczema.
Moccasin infection can advance to the nails, which may become crumbly or thick. Sometimes, patients even lose their nails.
The first signs of an infection is dry, sore and itchy skin. Eventually, the bottoms of the feet will crack and peel. The skin becomes thick over time.
Vesicular infection is a fungal infection characterized by blisters just under the skin. Often, these blisters are found on the soles of the instep. Sometimes, they are found around the toe webbing and in other parts of the feet, such as the top of the foot or the sole. Sometimes, the blisters appear on parts of the body unrelated to the feet, like the arms and sides of the body.
This painful, itchy rash can be worse in summer. If the blisters burst, a person may experience a bacterial infection as well.
People often get vesicular infection following chronic toe web infection. Vesicular infection is rare, but it is an allergic reaction to the fungus.
Some people are at higher risk for athlete’s foot than others. Behaviors, clothing choices, environment and even gender plays a role in whether someone gets athlete’s foot. What this means is that someone may be able to avoid athlete’s foot if they are educated about the risk factors, which include:
- Gender. Men are at higher risk for contracting athlete’s foot than women.
- Clothing. Wearing damp socks and/or tight fitting shoes can put someone at higher risk for athlete’s foot.
- Pre-existing conditions. Sores on the feet and conditions like diabetes can increase a person’s risk for athlete’s foot.
- Behaviors. Sharing clothes or a rug with someone who is infected, walking barefoot in public areas, and showering in public showers without plastic shower shoes are all factors that can increase your risk of getting athlete’s foot.
Fortunately, many risk factors are closely tied to behaviors, which means, to a certain degree, people can control their level of risk.
How to Avoid Athlete’s Foot
There are many things that people can do to protect their feet from athlete’s foot. The level of prevention people exercise should depend on the level of risk. Not everyone needs to do all of these things to avoid athlete’s foot. However, if someone is at high risk for any reason, either because they often wear damp shoes for their occupation, or they work or live in an environment where they are at high risk for this condition, then it is important to exercise caution.
- Keep feet dry whenever possible. It’s always best for someone to keep their feet dry whenever possible, even if they haven’t been walking barefoot in public places or in a home where someone with athlete’s foot has also been walking barefoot.
- Change socks every day.
- Switch shoes from one day to the next. Don’t wear the same shoes every day; give them a chance to breathe between wearings.
- Wash feet every day. People should use soap and dry their feet completely.
- Don’t share linens, clothes, towels or shoes with someone who has an infection. If someone has an infection, take extra precautions by avoiding skin contact with surfaces they may have infected.
- Wear shower shoes in public showers. Avoid direct contact with concrete or tile that may have been touched by someone with an infection.
- Avoid wearing shoes made of vinyl or rubber. Wear breathable shoes made from natural materials.
- Use treatments. Anti-fungal powder can help keep feet dry; use as directed.
Athlete’s Foot Treatment
Mild cases of toe web infection are easy to treat with over-the-counter medication. However, if the case goes untreated for a long time, then eliminating the problem becomes more difficult. Other types of athlete’s foot can be much more difficult to get rid of. A physician may need to prescribe medication for severe cases or for other types of athlete’s foot.
Additionally, a variety of home remedies are available that people use to treat their own athlete’s foot. However, they should consult with their physician first if they plan to use a home remedy, as their doctor can help them decide whether home remedies will be effective and are appropriate for their particular case. Before someone tries to treat their athlete’s foot on their own, they should remember that there are different types of this condition. Therefore, they will want to ensure that they know what kind of condition they have before taking medication or using treatment. This is another reason to always consult with a doctor first.
There are many home remedies for athlete’s foot, including over-the-counter treatments that can be purchased without a prescription. However, over-the-counter athlete’s foot medications are designed specifically for the purpose of eliminating fungal infections, and these medications are generally acknowledged by physicians to be effective for their purpose. Over-the-counter treatments are different from other home remedies, like neem oil, which is not a product specifically designed for curing athlete’s foot.
Hydrogen peroxide can be used to treat athlete’s foot. To use hydrogen peroxide against athlete’s foot, pour the solution over the affected areas twice per day. The hydrogen peroxide may bubble and sting. Continue using this method until the infection subsides.
Tea Tree Oil
Mix tea tree oil with coconut oil (one part tea tree oil with one to three parts coconut oil), then apply the mixture to the affected areas twice daily. This solution should treat symptoms as well as the condition itself. Continue use of the oil until the infection is gone.
Apply neem oil to the affected areas two or three times daily. Discontinue use when the infection is gone.
Combine seven parts rubbing alcohol with three parts water, then soak feet in a foot bath containing the solution for 30 minutes. Continue this routine daily for as long as the infection continues.
If home remedies take longer than a week to be effective, consult with a physician before continuing use of any home remedy.
Over-the-counter treatments for athlete’s foot include powders, sprays, ointments, and lotions. These products can be purchased at pharmacies, online, and in grocery stores. Over-the-counter treatments can take between 1 and 4 weeks to work. Medications that take longer to work may be more expensive because they sometimes require multiple tubes or containers.
Over-the-counter treatments can have some unpleasant side effects, like any medication. These side effects are rare and are not experienced by most patients, but they include:
Many medications specify that if any of these side effects occur, then the medication should be discontinued and a physician should be consulted.
How to Apply Cream
Applying over-the-counter creams to affected areas can treat athlete’s foot, but they can also contribute to the spread of the fungus, if not applied correctly. Always follow all instructions when applying cream to affected areas. Any instructions provided by the manufacturer of a medication override any instructions provided in this tutorial.
Apply the cream to dry skin only. Once the cream has been applied, wash and throroughly dry hands. People should not touch other parts of their body or other surfaces before washing their hands and should wash anything that they do touch after applying the cream.
After applying the cream, wrap feet in a breathable gauze, and avoid putting shoes on. If someone must put shoes or socks on, however, they should use socks made from natural materials and wear loose-fitting, breathable shoes such as sandals.
Treating Moccasin Type Athlete’s Foot
A physician may need to prescribe oral therapy for moccasin type athlete’s foot, especially if someone does not respond to topical treatments. Topical creams are sometimes not strong enough to treat this type of athlete’s foot because the thickness of the scale is often impenetrable for fungal creams. This type of condition is often affected by chronic recurrence, which can make treatment challenging.
When to See a Doctor
Many people choose to treat their athlete’s foot without seeing a physician. However, athlete’s foot can be a serious problem if it’s not treated properly. This condition often builds on itself, with mild symptoms eventually leading to more serious symptoms if it progresses. Knowing when to see a doctor can help people recover efficiently without need for stronger medications. Here’s when to see a doctor:
- The symptoms have continued unabated for over two weeks.
- The rash looks infected, either with pus, redness, smell, swelling and terrible tenderness.
- The rash has developed ulcers.
A doctor may prescribe oral medication to eliminate the condition. These oral medications are very strong and can have serious side effects, including gastrointestinal upset, liver damage, rash and heart problems. If someone has a history of heart failure, heart problems or liver problems, then they should be prepared to talk to their doctor about these conditions. This is especially important when visiting a new doctor.
What Happens When Athlete’s Foot Is Left Untreated?
If athlete’s foot is left untreated, a bacterial infection could be the result. The first sign that this has occurred is in the appearance of blisters and ulcers in the infected area. This infection can spread to other parts of the body, which can make it even more difficult to control.
Infection can also be the result if someone scratches their athlete’s foot, thus irritating the skin. If someone is suffering from an itchy form of athlete’s foot, they can wear gauze around their feet to prevent them from scratching the area. If they have a bacterial infection relating to their athlete’s foot, they can avoid spreading their infection to other members of their household by practicing good hand hygiene and consulting with their physician.
How to Prevent Athlete’s Foot from Spreading in the Laundry
Athlete’s foot is very contagious and can shed onto socks, shoes, damp workout clothes, and much more. Shed skin from an infection can pass the fungus from one member of the family to another, until everyone in the house is suffering from athlete’s foot. This can be prevented by taking precautions.
Preventing the spread of athlete’s foot through laundry may require people to make some changes to the way they keep their house and clean their clothes. These changes are only necessary while the member of their family is getting over their infection. While these changes can be inconvenient, they’re worthwhile, as an infection can be painful and difficult to get rid of—especially when multiple people in the house are having this problem.
Keep Items Separated
If someone is suffering from athlete’s foot, they can start putting their own laundry into a bag that is separate from the other laundry in their home. They can use a mesh bag that is easy to wash, using bleach to wash the bag. They can also clean the other laundry with bleach, but keep in mind that bleach can stain clothes, so it should be used sparingly.
Disinfect Shoes, Gym Bags, and Backpacks
Disinfecting shoes, gym bags and/or backpacks can help eliminate the fungus. People should clean anything that is used to hold shoes as well as the shoes themselves. If they use an insole, then they should consider replacing it, once they have successfully managed to get rid of the athlete’s foot.
To disinfect gym shoes, take off the shoe laces and put them in a mesh bag for cleaning. Wash any dirt off the shoes before putting them in their own mesh bag for cleaning. Wash the shoes on a low setting with a gym bag or backpack to prevent the washing machine from becoming imbalanced. Add a pine oil disinfectant to the load of laundry to disinfect the shoes.
Once the shoes are finished in the washer, put paper towels in the shoes to help them keep their shape during the drying process. This will prevent them from becoming misshapen. If the shoes have been in contact with other items of clothing (such as when they were in a gym bag), disinfect those items as well.
Wash and Dry Items Properly
When washing and drying items, people should use the highest heat possible, as hot water can help kill the fungus. The same rule (use hot water and dry thoroughly) applies to washing their hands. Always wash and dry hands after scratching feet, applying gauze, inspecting skin or doing anything that involves touching feet.
Very hot water must be used in order to kill the fungus. If someone decides to soak their feet for any reason, they should soak them in the hottest water they can handle.
Myths About Athlete’s Foot
Because athlete’s foot is a common condition, there are many myths about this type of infection. Knowing the myths and how to identify fact from fiction can help someone take care of their body. Knowing what is true and what is not true can also help them treat the condition. Below are some common misunderstandings about this fungus.
Myth 1: You Can Only Get Athlete’s Foot Once
Unfortunately, you can get athlete’s foot over and over again, and some people do. If your feet are regularly exposed to the right conditions, or if athlete’s foot is found in your environment, or if you are a high-risk person for athlete’s foot, you could find yourself battling chronic recurrences of this condition. To avoid getting athlete’s foot again, you’ll need to use a combination of prevention techniques. Work with your doctor to identify the source to avoid future infection.
Myth 2: Athlete’s Foot Can Clear Up On Its Own
Athlete’s foot is unlikely to go away on its own. Waiting for it to clear up could result in an infection far worse than the original infection. Do not wait for athlete’s foot to go away. If you are experiencing red, scaly skin, blisters, dry feet, itchiness, soreness or any of the other symptoms of athlete’s foot, get treatment for your condition as soon as possible.
Myth 3: You Can’t Get Athlete’s Foot if Your Feet Were Protected by Your Shoes All Day Long
While it is true that stepping barefoot into a public shower is a common way to get athlete’s foot, you can also get it by simply wearing sweaty, wet shoes all day long. It’s very important to wear breathable shoes, especially if you’re doing work outside that could result in your feet getting wet.
Myth 4: Only Athletes Get Athlete’s Foot
Anyone can get athlete’s foot if they’re exposed to the fungus and the conditions are right. People who commonly get athlete’s foot are soldiers who walk for long stretches of time in wet or moist conditions, like a forest or jungle.
Myth 5: You Can Only Get Athlete’s Foot on Your Feet
Athlete’s foot can affect parts of your body like your hands, your groin and in your underarms. This condition can spread to other parts of your body when you touch your feet and then touch your body. Always wash your hands after touching your feet, and avoid touching others as well.
Myth 6: Showering Regularly Can Prevent Athlete’s Foot
Moist, warm environments can contribute to the spread of athlete’s foot. Many people get athlete’s foot from taking showers in public shower facilities, because the fungus can transfer from one person’s feet to the floor of the shower and then can attach itself to other people’s feet. Prevent athlete’s foot by keeping feet dry and clean and using antifungal powder to keep feet dry.
Myth 7: Athlete’s Foot Happens Because of Poor Foot Hygiene
Athlete’s foot happens because of a fungus. You can get athlete’s foot if you’re exposed to the fungus and your foot is in a warm, moist environment. Risk factors and environmental conditions can affect whether you get athlete’s foot. These factors also contribute to the severity of the infection.
Athlete’s foot does not occur because your feet are dirty. In fact, showering a lot can cause you to get athlete’s foot, if you take showers in an environment where the fungus lives and you do not take precautions to protect your feet.
Myth 8: If Your Skin Isn’t Peeling, It Isn’t Athlete’s Foot
This condition looks different for everyone. Some people get peeling skin, while others experience dry skin. Still, others are almost asymptomatic and have no idea they have athlete’s foot, which is why it is important to consult with a physician.
If You Think You Have Athlete’s Foot, Seek Treatment Immediately
Some people experience severe athlete’s foot, while others get only a mild case. Either way, get treatment if you have an active infection. Avoid touching other parts of your body after touching your feet until you’ve washed your hands with hot water. Protect your feet when taking public showers, and avoid letting your feet get wet. If your shoes and feet do get wet, change shoes as soon as possible and dry your feet by patting them with a towel. Wash the towel right away.
Remembering to do what you can to avoid athlete’s foot, and seeking treatment as soon as you notice a problem, can help you take care of your feet. If the condition is allowed to grow and spread, you may face a secondary infection that could cause serious problems and discomfort for weeks or months to come.
Remember to prevent the spread of athlete’s foot by taking the right steps when cleaning and disinfecting your laundry. Doing this eliminates athlete’s foot from your life and also prevents the condition from spreading from you to someone else in your house. By getting treatment and taking care of yourself, you can get rid of athlete’s foot quickly.