What Is Athlete's Foot?

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Overview

Athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis, is a  common fungal infection of the skin on the foot. It is contagious and can spread to the hands and toenails. This infection is called athlete’s foot because it commonly occurs in athletes. While it is common and usually not serious, athlete’s foot can sometimes be difficult to treat. If you have a compromised and weak immune system or you suffer from diabetes and you think you have athlete’s foot, contact a doctor as soon as possible. This article will explore causes, symptoms and management options for athlete’s foot. 

Causes of athlete's foot

Athlete’s foot is caused by the growth of the tinea fungus on the feet. This fungus develops and survives in moist, damp and warm environments such as bathrooms, showers, changing/ locker room floors, swimming pools and more. If you touch surfaces contaminated with the fungus or you come into contact with infected skin scales of a person with the fungal infection, you are at risk of developing athlete’s foot. 

Symptoms of athlete's foot

Signs of athlete’s foot

Athlete’s foot symptoms vary, and can include: 

  • itching or burning sensation on the soles of the feet or (most frequently) between toes 
  • itchy blistering on the feet or between the toes, blisters often appear as white patches 
  • dry skin on soles of the feet or in between the toes 
  • skin peeling especially on blisters formed between the toes or on the soles of the foot
  • raw skin caused by advanced skin peeling
  • toenails that look discoloured and thick 
  • toenails that are “crumbly” and break or pull back the nail beds 

Complications

As already mentioned, athlete’s foot can spread to the soles and sides of the foot. If left untreated, it can lead to the formation of blisters that are filled with fluid. This can cause the infection to eventually spread to the toe nails and end up in a fungal nail infection. In rare and more severe cases, the fungal infection can result in a bacterial infection. Similarly to fungi, bacteria thrive in damp and moist environments. Even though some fungi can produce a substance with antibiotic properties that can kill off bacteria, this actually aids the growth of more resistant and stronger bacteria leading to bacterial infections. This causes the overall course of the infection to become longer and harder to treat. It can also lead to tissue breakdown, making the skin between the toes soggy and painful. Additional signs that may indicate a bacterial infection are fever, pus and drainage coming from the blisters.

Management and treatment for athlete's foot

Topical antifungal medications that can be purchased over the counter are the most common treatment for athlete’s foot, and in most cases are effective. 

Home remedies

The most common at-home remedy that some doctors recommend is soaking your feet in diluted vinegar or salt water. This can help your blisters heal faster. 

Some doctors may also recommend using a tea tree oil solution. Tea tree oil is thought to be beneficial for the treatment of athlete’s foot. However, tea tree oil is associated with the development of contact dermatitis in some cases, so ask a doctor before you plan to use it.1 

Medications

Topical antifungal medications that can be purchased over the counter are the most common treatment for athlete’s foot, and in most cases are effective. These can be found in three forms: creams, sprays and powders. They can take a couple of weeks to work. Some antifungal treatments are not suitable for children, so if you are treating a child make sure you use the appropriate medication. If over-the-counter medications are not working, contact a doctor. Your doctor may prescribe you with topical or oral antifungal treatments that are a lot stronger and require a doctor’s prescription. 

Diagnosis

Medical examinations

In most cases, your doctor will be able to diagnose athlete’s food simply by observing the skin on your feet and the blisters between your toes, if you have developed them. 

Laboratory tests

In some cases, athlete’s foot can resemble dermatitis or dry skin. In order to confirm that the diagnosis of athlete’s foot is accurate and to rule out other infections or conditions, your doctor may remove some skin from the affected area (by gentle scraping) and send it to a lab for testing. 

FAQs

How common is athlete's foot?

Athlete’s foot is relatively common and can happen to anyone. Around 15% to 25% of people will get athlete’s foot at least once in their life.2

Is athlete's foot contagious?

Athlete’s foot is a contagious fungal infection and it can either spread from person to person by making contact with the infected area or by making contact with an infected surface. 

How can I prevent athlete's foot?

These are a few ways you can prevent athlete’s foot: 

  • Make sure you towel dry your feet after washing them, especially in between your toes. Try to avoid rubbing them, pat them dry instead
  • Do not use the same towel you use for your body or face on your feet. Wash the feet towel often. 
  • Try not wearing your shoes at home or when you do not need to
  • Opt for clean cotton socks. Make sure you wear socks when you have shoes on
  • Avoid scratching your blisters or dry skin patches. Scratching can spread the infections to other areas of your body
  • Avoid walking barefoot especially in rooms with a wet or damp floor (such as showers or changing rooms)
  • Avoid sharing socks, shoes and towels with others
  • Avoid wearing tight shoes or shoes that cause your feet to feel hot and sweaty

Who is at risk of athlete's foot?

While anyone can contract athlete’s foot, the fungal infection is most likely to affect older people assigned male at birth (AMAB) (over 60). The risk is also increased in people who have diabetes, are obese, have a weak immune system or tissue damage and wounds on the feet. 

What should I expect if I have athlete's foot

If you are suffering from athlete’s foot you should expect to experience dry, sore skin on your feet and painful blisters especially between your toes and on the soles of the feet. With the use of over-the-counter medication you can usually treat athlete’s foot within a couple of weeks. 

When should I see a doctor?

While in most cases over-the-counter antifungal treatments are adequate to treat athlete’s foot within a few weeks, contact a doctor if you believe you require prescription medication. It is also encouraged that you contact a doctor if you have diabetes and you suspect you have athlete’s foot. 

Summary

Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that affects the feet and especially the area between the toes. Fungal infections are contagious and you can get althlete’s foot from coming into contact with an infected person’s skin or contaminated surfaces. Symptoms include sore, blistering feet and toes. You can usually treat athlete’s foot with over-the-counter antifungal creams, however if the symptoms persist, your doctor can prescribe you with stronger medication. If you have diabetes, are obese or immunocompromised and you suspect you have athlete’s foot, contact your doctor. 

References

  1. Satchell AC, Saurajen A, Bell C, Barnetson RS. Treatment of interdigital tinea pedis with 25% and 50% tea tree oil solution: A randomized, placebo-controlled, blinded study. Australas J Dermatol [Internet]. 2002 Aug [cited 2023 Mar 25];43(3):175–8. Available from: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1046/j.1440-0960.2002.00590.x 
  2. Crawford F. Athlete’s foot. BMJ Clin Evid [Internet]. 2009 Jul 20 [cited 2023 Mar 25];2009:1712. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907807/ 

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Athanasia Chiraki

Masters of Science - Clinical Neuroscience, University College London

Nancy is a Clinical Neuroscience postgraduate student studying at UCL. She has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology with Neuroscience from the University of Reading. She has experience in the mental health as well as hospitality sector, and her main interest is Neuroscientific Research and Artificial Intelligence. She is currently in the process of publishing her study on ADHD and deception.

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