What is athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot is a contagious foot infection caused by fungi. These fungi thrive in closed, warm, moist, damp environments such as locker rooms, showers, and swimming pool areas and even moist socks. A scaly rash between the toes stinging, burning, and itching are common for this contagious condition.
Athlete’s foot is a contagious foot infection caused by fungi. These fungi thrive in closed, warm, moist, damp environments such as locker rooms, showers, and swimming pool areas and even moist socks. A scaly rash between the toes stinging, burning, and itching are common for this contagious condition.

Athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis, is a contagious skin and foot infection caused by fungi. It usually starts between the toes, creating red and itchy scales.

Fungal infections like jock itch and ringworm are closely related to athlete’s foot, and while these can be treated, reinfection is common.

Signs and symptoms of athlete's foot

Athlete’s foot usually starts with a scaly, red rash between the toes, accompanied by stinging, burning, and itching. Other signs of athlete’s foot include swelling and peeling skin.

One variety of athlete’s foot can create scaling on the soles of the feet. Another variety can cause blisters. Athlete’s foot is contagious, spreading easily through clothing, used towels, and contaminated floor surfaces. Scratching at the infection can also spread it to the hands and other parts of the body.

Types of athlete's foot

The three types of athlete’s foot are:

  • Interdigital, which most often occurs between the two smallest toes. 
  • Moccasin, which starts with the skin on the sole becoming thick and cracking. The infection may spread up the sides of the foot and infect the toenails.
  • Vesicular, often starting with fluid-filled blisters on the sole of the foot. This type of athlete’s foot can also lead to a bacterial infection

Causes of athlete's foot

The cause of athlete’s foot is fungi, which lives everywhere — on flooring, in the soil, and on the skin and clothing of other people. Fungi thrive in damp, dark, and warm places, especially locker rooms, showers, and areas around swimming pools. Wearing shoes while exercising creates a dark, warm, and moist place that is ideal for fungal growth.

Men are at higher risk of athlete’s foot. Other risk factors are:

  • Tight shoes
  • Moist socks
  • Rugs, bedding, and clothing shared with an infected person

Athlete's foot can result in problems for your skin, but it does not spread internally through the body. Athlete’s foot is highly contagious, though, and it spreads easily through contact with the infected area.

Scratching at the infection can spread it to the hands and other areas. It can easily spread through contact with contaminated clothing, used towels, and floor surfaces. In addition to your hands, athlete’s foot can also spread to your toenails and to your groin as jock itch.

QUESTION

Ringworm is caused by a fungus. See Answer

When to see a doctor for athlete's foot

You can treat athlete’s foot with over-the-counter antifungal medications. However, you should see a foot care specialist if the rash does not respond within two weeks.

You should also see a doctor if you have diabetes and notice anything unusual on your feet, since skin infections are a common side effect of the condition.

Ask your doctor how to prevent the rash from spreading and what types of tests and treatments you might need

Diagnosing athlete's foot

Your doctor may be able to make a diagnosis simply by looking at the rash and asking a few questions. However, your doctor may need to rule out other causes. They’ll do this by sending a skin scraping to a lab. Skin or nail scraping is performed with a specialized tool. After the procedure, you may experience some soreness or bleeding at the scraping site. 

If fungi are found in the sample, it would indicate you have a fungal infection. More testing may be needed to determine what medication your particular infection needs.

Treatments for athlete's foot

Mild forms of athlete’s foot can be treated with over-the-counter medications, but more severe forms of infection may require a prescription ointment or oral antifungal medicine.

While treating the infection, keep the affected area dry and exposed to fresh air. Wear light shoes that let in air, and change them each day.

  1. Do not scratch the affected areas. Soaking the rash in cool water can help with the itching.
  2. During and after treatment, follow these eight tips to prevent reinfection:
  3. Do not walk around barefoot, particularly in moist areas where fungi tend to be present. These could be areas such as showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and swimming pools. Wear sauna slippers, flip-flops, or shower shoes. 
  4. Wear shoes that let your feet breathe and are not too tight.
  5. Spray or powder your shoes with an antifungal treatment every day.
  6. Do not share sneakers, boots, sandals, or slippers with others.
  7. Throw away old footwear.
  8. Spray or powder your shoes every day with an antifungal agent.
  9. Keep your toenails short, cutting straight across to avoid ingrown nails.
  10. Make sure any other family member with a fungal infection gets treatment. 

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Medically Reviewed on 12/24/2020
References
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: "Fungus Infections: Preventing Recurrance."

American Podiatric Medical Association: "Athlete's Foot."

CDC: "Hygiene-related Diseases, Athlete's Foot."

CDC: "Hygiene-related Diseases, Athlete's Foot."

Harvard University: "Athlete's foot: Causes, prevention, and treatment."

Harvard University: "Athlete's Foot (Tinea Pedis)."

Mayo Clinic: "Athlete's foot: Diagnosis & Treatment."

Mayo Clinic: "Athlete's foot: Symptoms & Causes."

NIH: "Fungal Culture Test."

University of Michigan: "Athlete's Foot."
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