What is Athlete’s Foot?
You have likely heard of ringworm, “jock itch,” and athlete’s foot, but did you know that these skin conditions are caused by a group of fungi that live on skin, hair, and nails—collectively referred to as tinea or dermatophytes?
Fungal skin infection on the foot or feet is called athlete’s foot. This infection causes red, itchy, and scaling/peeling patches of skin, commonly seen between toes and on the bottom and/or sides of feet. The feet are particularly susceptible because fungus loves warm, moist environments—your shoes combined with sweaty feet and socks result in a perfect host.
The name athlete’s foot is misleading—many incorrectly assume only athletes and men suffer from this condition, but that is not the case. It is true that the fungus responsible is commonly found in places where athletes frequent, such as locker rooms and showers; however, anyone (not just athletes) exposed to the fungus can develop athlete’s foot. It is contagious and easily spread in a variety of ways:
- Person to person (skin-to-skin).
- Contaminated object to person (including floors, showers, towels, socks, and shoes).
- Animal to person.
Yes, that is correct—If pets have ringworm, they can spread the fungus to you by personal contact or by contact with common areas in the house (and when the fungus infects the feet, it causes athlete’s foot). You can even spread athlete’s foot to other areas of your own body (hands, nails, and groin) when your hands, clothes, or bedding come in contact with the infected area. It is important to avoid scratching and to practice good hand hygiene.
Risk factors for developing athlete’s foot include:
- Wearing damp socks or tight-fitting shoes.
- Wearing socks and/or shoes that cause your feet to sweat.
- Sharing socks, shoes, or towels with others.
- Contact with contaminated surfaces and/or walking barefoot in public areas (such as floors in locker rooms, pool areas, saunas, showers).
- Not wearing gloves nor washing your hands after handling a pet infected with ringworm.
Signs and symptoms associated with athlete’s foot include:
- Red, scaling, and itching rash that typically starts between the toes (symptoms can also be present on the soles or sides of the feet).
- Cracked and peeling skin.
- Itching that is worse after you take off your shoes and socks.
- Burning and stinging pain.
- Blisters or ulcers can also be present in more severe cases.
- One or both feet may be affected (the rash can spread to other parts of your body).
The good news is athlete’s foot typically responds well to over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal creams, lotions, or powders for home treatment. It may take 2-4 weeks of treatment with OTC medication for your symptoms to resolve; follow the application instructions provided on the package. Common OTC products include:
- Clotrimazole (Lotrim)
- Terbinafine (Lamisil—this OTC treatment appears to be the most effective)
If the symptoms persist or if you have diabetes, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Prescription-strength anti-fungal medication may be required.
During treatment it is important to take the following measures:
- Avoid swimming or walking barefoot in public areas.
- Air out your shoes by alternating them every 2-3 days.
- Wear sandals.
- Avoid scratching.
Now that you are aware of causes, risk factors, and treatment options, see below for tips on ways to prevent athlete’s foot and keep your feet happy.
- Keep your feet clean and dry: Dry between your toes following a shower.
- Change your socks frequently: If you have particularly sweaty feet, change your socks twice daily.
- Wear shoes that do not cause your feet to sweat or become hot (such as rubber or vinyl shoes)
- Avoid walking barefoot in public areas: Consider waterproof shoes or sandals.
- Avoid sharing socks, shoes, and towels.
- Be aware socks made from cotton or wool tend to hold moisture (and thus help create the damp environment that fungus loves).
- If your pet has ringworm—
- Wash your hands immediately after handling your pet.
- Wear gloves if handling a pet with ringworm.
- Vacuum areas where your infected pet traveled.
- Disinfect areas the pet occupied, including bedding—this kills spores that spread the fungus (example of disinfectant: diluted bleach + water (1/4 cup per one gallon of water)).
What are the terms used for different fungal infections on other parts of the body?
- Feet = Tinea pedis (athlete’s foot)
- Groin = Tinea cruris (“jock itch”)
- Scalp = Tinea capitis
- Areas of the body other than the feet, groin, or scalp = Tinea corporis
1 “Myths & Facts About Athlete’s Foot,” WebMD.
4 Mayo Clinic, “Athlete’s Foot.”
6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Treatment for Ringworm,” Fungal Diseases.
7 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Athlete’s Foot (tinea pedis),” Hygiene-related Diseases.
9 See “Myths & Facts About Athlete’s Foot,” “Athlete’s Foot,” and “Treatment for Ringworm,” above.