Athlete's foot can cause mild or intense discomfort for those who are affected. This condition can range from an annoying itchy rash to a severe infection that can spread to the other parts of the foot, which will require a prescription medicine. If caught early, it can be treated simply with over-the-counter (OTC) medications and proactive habits that reduce your chances of contracting it. In this guide, you will learn all about athlete's foot, including what causes it, how it spreads, and when you should see a podiatrist.
What Is Athlete's Foot?
Athlete's foot is a fungal infection that affects the feet, under the sole of the foot and between the toes. Also known as tinea pedis, athlete's foot can be found on one or both feet, typically occurs on the bottom or soles of the feet, and on the heels. This contagious infection often causes an itchy, scaly, or burning rash on the skin of the feet. Often the problem doesn’t have to itch and many think they just have dry skin. It's a common condition for people who have sweaty feet and wear tight-fitting shoes. Athlete's foot is related to other fungal infections like ringworm or jock itch and should be treated with antifungal medications. If not appropriately treated, reinfection may occur.
What Causes Athlete's Foot?
Athlete's foot can develop from several different species of fungi. Typically, it's caused by the same fungus that develops into ringworm and is known as dermatophytes. Fungus needs warm and moist conditions to grow. This is why athlete's foot primarily affects those with damp feet who wear tight-fitting shoes daily. Wet socks and tight shoes create the ideal humid environment that athlete's foot needs to thrive.
How Is It Spread?
Generally, athlete's foot spreads when you come into contact with the infection through contaminated surfaces like wet floors, towels, or shoes, or with another person who already has it. This specific type of fungus is very contagious. If you regularly practice these habits, you are at a higher risk of contracting the infection:
Wear enclosed shoes.
Leave sweaty feet untreated.
Share shoes, clothes, floor rugs, blankets, or other linens with someone with a fungal infection.
Walk barefoot in public places like locker rooms, swimming pools, or communal showers.
What Are the Symptoms of Athlete's Foot?
Common symptoms of athlete's foot include:
Cracked or scaly skin between the toes.
Feet that are incredibly itchy after removing socks and shoes.
Burning, stinging feet, and painful blisters.
Red, purple, or gray skin.
Extremely dry skin that covers the bottom and sides of the foot.
If you show symptoms that are a bit more particular than those listed above, you may have one of these specific varieties of athlete's foot:
Toe Web Infection
The most common type of athlete's foot is a toe web infection. It appears on the skin between the ring and pinkie toes and can be prone to cracking, peeling, and flaking.
This type of infection affects the bottoms, edges, and heels of the feet. For the first few days, your feet may be sore and exhibit no other symptoms. Then you'll notice the bottoms of your feet getting thicker and starting to crack. In severe cases, the toenails can become infected, thicken, and break into small pieces.
Vesicular-type infections usually develop on the bottom of the feet but can also appear in other places on your feet. You'll know you've contracted this fungal infection if you see bumps or fluid-filled blisters on your feet, also known as vesicles.
Ulcerative athlete's foot is the rarest type of this infection. It's characterized by open sores, or ulcers, that appear between your toes and the bottom of your feet.
How Is It Treated?
Athlete's foot can be treated using either OTC remedies, prescription medications, or a combination of the two. Common OTC treatments come in various forms, such as antifungal creams, ointments, powders, or sprays. Prescription-strength ointments or creams include clotrimazole (Lotrisone), ciclopirox (Loprox, Penlac), or econazole (Ecoza, Spectazole). A doctor may prescribe oral medication such as terbinafine (Lamisil) or itraconazole (Sporanox, Tolsura) for more severe infections. Sometimes a combination of these remedies works well to eliminate all traces of the condition.
An important note to remember: Be sure to finish the entire course of treatment exactly as your doctor has prescribed. Failure to do so can result in the athlete's foot returning, making it even harder to treat the second time.
How Can I Prevent Athlete's Foot?
Thankfully, there are several ways to avoid getting athlete's foot and spreading it to others if you do happen to contract it:
Always let your feet air out so they can dry completely.
When possible, wear sandals to keep your feet from getting and staying moist.
Wash your feet every day with warm, soapy water. Rinse and dry them thoroughly, taking special care with the space between the toes.
Use a medicated foot powder daily if you are at higher risk of contracting athlete's foot.
Change your socks at least once a day, preferably more often, if you tend to have very sweaty feet.
Wear moisture-wicking socks that are made from cotton.
Use different shoes each day to give them time to completely dry.
Wear waterproof sandals or shoes in public places like pools, showers, or locker rooms.
If you have roommates, do not wear their shoes or use their bedding or towels.
When Should I See a Podiatrist?
If you've tried a few OTC treatments and your feet are not showing improvement within two weeks, it's time to make an appointment with a doctor or podiatrist. Individuals with diabetes should promptly see their doctor if they suspect they may have athlete's foot or any other fungal infection on their feet. You should also make an appointment if your feet show signs of an infection such as swelling, pus, or fever.
Schedule a consultation with Dr. Lisa Schoene and Dr. Bruce Bever today for concerns or questions regarding athlete's foot. Our experienced professionals on staff at Gurnee Podiatry & Sports Medicine Associates that can offer valuable treatment options for athlete's foot, dance injuries, and pediatric foot injuries, as well as sports medicine therapies, foot or ankle surgeries, shockwave treatments, and a wide range of podiatry services for individuals living in the Chicago area. We strive to provide excellent patient care by educating our patients and helping them make well-informed decisions regarding their treatment.