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How do you tell if you have athlete's foot or dry skin?
Dry skin can affect almost any part of your body, but if you have it on your feet, it might be difficult to tell if it’s dry skin or athlete’s foot. Learn more about these conditions and what sets them apart to better understand what treatments you might need to find relief.
What is athlete's foot vs. dry skin?
Both athlete’s foot and dry skin can affect your feet. The main differences are what causes them and how one can spread.
Athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis, is a fungal infection that occurs on your feet, frequently developing between the toes. It’s a contagious condition that can affect any part of your feet, and it may also spread to your toenails or hands. While it’s not serious, it can be very uncomfortable.
Dry skin is a condition in which your skin becomes scaly and itchy. Like an athlete’s foot, it’s not usually serious. There are many different causes, including weather conditions, dry air, and underlying medical conditions. It can develop anywhere on your body, commonly affecting your hands, arms, and legs.
What are symptoms and signs of athlete's foot vs. dry skin?
Athlete’s foot and dry skin can look and feel similarly when it comes to dry and itchy feet. A few symptoms can set them apart, though.
Athlete’s foot is generally characterized by red, itchy scales on your feet. The most common symptom is skin that cracks and flakes. You may also notice:
- Burning or stinging
- Oozing blisters that may crust over
- Thick, discolored toenails
- Crumbling toenails
Symptoms of dry skin can vary depending on factors such as your age, your health, and where you live. They include:
- Rough, flaky skin
- Irritation and itching
- Skin that feels raw or stings
What are causes of athlete's foot vs. dry skin?
While athlete’s foot symptoms may be similar to dry skin symptoms, the causes are different.
The cause of athlete’s foot is a contagious fungal infection. You can catch the fungus by coming into direct contact with another person who has an infection. You can also get it by touching contaminated surfaces.
The fungus that causes athlete’s foot thrives in warm, moist environments. One of the most common ways to pick it up is by walking barefoot in a locker room, public shower, or pool. You can also get an infection by sharing shoes, socks, or a towel with someone who has it.
Dry skin has many causes. It may develop as a result of aging, as your skin produces fewer natural oils that keep your skin soft and hydrated. Other causes include:
- Dry air
- Certain types of medications, such as statins and diuretics
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Exposure to certain chemicals
- Frequent exposure to water (such as hand washing)
- Skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis, and psoriasis
- Health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, and HIV
- Cancer treatment
How to diagnose athlete's foot vs. dry skin
Even though these two conditions appear similar at first glance, doctors can often diagnose the cause with a visual examination. Sometimes they’ll want to do a few tests to confirm the best course of treatment and to rule out underlying concerns.
In many cases, your doctor can diagnose athlete’s foot by looking at your skin. If they can’t diagnose the condition by sight, they will order testing. There are a few tests that can help diagnose athlete’s foot, such as:
- Taking a small sample of the infected skin, placing it in a potassium hydroxide solution, and checking the sample under the microscope
- Staining a skin sample to identify any fungus
- Performing a skin culture
Diagnosing dry skin generally involves a medical exam and review of your medical history. Your doctor will go over your symptoms, including when they started, what makes your dry skin worse or better, your diet, and your skincare routine. If your doctor suspects that an underlying condition is the cause of your dry skin, they may order extra testing, such as for diabetes or thyroid issues.
Treatments of athlete's foot vs. dry skin
Lotions may bring some relief for either athlete’s foot or dry skin, but athlete’s foot requires extra treatment to get rid of the infection causing the symptoms.
Treating athlete’s foot generally involves a topical medication. In many cases, you can use an over-the-counter medication, such as tolnaftate or clotrimazole. Sometimes, however, the infection can be difficult to treat. If an over-the-counter treatment isn’t working, your doctor may prescribe something stronger. They may recommend:
- A stronger topical medication, including steroids to help with pain and inflammation
- An oral antifungal such as itraconazole or fluconazole
- Oral antibiotics if you develop a bacterial infection
In some cases, you may be able to treat athlete’s foot with tea tree oil. One study found that 64% of trial participants were able to successfully treat their infection with a 50% tea tree oil solution.
Athlete’s foot spreads easily. After treating your infection, you can take steps to avoid another one. They include:
- Keeping your toenails trimmed
- Keeping your feet dry and cool
- Wearing sandals when using a public pool or shower
- Wearing shoes that breathe well
Treatment for dry skin varies based on the cause. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist. Other treatments may include:
- Over-the-counter or prescription ointments
- Using moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated
- Lifestyle changes such as avoiding hot showers, using certain types of soaps, running a humidifier in your home during drier months, and wearing rubber gloves when washing dishes or cleaning with chemicals
- Drinking plenty of water
- Treating the underlying cause, by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet to improve nutrient deficiencies, taking medications for thyroid issues, and more
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American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Dry Skin: Signs and Symptoms."
American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Dry Skin: Who Gets and Causes."
American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Dry Skin: Diagnosis and Treatments."
Australian Journal of Dermatology: "Treatment of Interdigital Tinea Pedis with 25% and 50% Tea Tree Oil Solution: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Blinded Study."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Athlete's Foot (Tinea Pedis)."
Michigan Medicine: "Athlete's Foot."
Penn Medicine: "What Is Athlete’s Foot?"
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