Athlete's Foot

1 What is athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot, also known as tinea pedis, is a fungal skin infection of the toes and soles of the feet.

The infection causes:

  • Itching
  • Scaling
  • Burning

This is a contagious infection and spreads from one person to another by walking on contaminated objects.

Walking barefoot in public places like locker rooms is the most common cause of infection.

As the name indicates, athlete’s foot is more commonly seen among athletes.

Antifungal medications are used to treat the infection, but it may recur.

It may be hard to cure in people with conditions like diabetes or a weak immune system. 

What does athlete's foot look like?

The mild form of athlete’s foot is barely noticeable. You may notice dry, flaky skin but there will be no redness or inflammation.

However, severe athlete’s foot has visible symptoms such as red, dry and peeling skin on one or both soles of the feet. Sometimes they may spread onto the tops and sides of the foot as well. However, the rashes most commonly affect only the bottoms of the feet or the spaces between the toes. Rarely, it may also appear as calluses with redness, small or large blisters, and thick patches of red, dry skin.

Vesicular athlete's foot

Vesicular athlete’s foot is the least common type of fungal infection. It is characterized by the sudden outbreaks of painful, fluid-filled blisters on the areas under the skin. Most commonly, these blisters appear on the sole or top of the foot, but they may also develop on the heel and between the toes. It may also affect other parts of the body such as the chest, arms, or sides of the fingers. These blisters are a result of allergic reaction to the fungus on the foot. This is also called an id reaction. Also referred to as “jungle rot” sometimes, this type of athlete’s foot is also historically known for disabling servicemen fighting in moist, warm and humid conditions.

If you have vesicular athlete’s foot, soak your foot in Burow's solution (a liquid made with water and aluminum acetate) several times a day. Continue it for 3 or more days until the blister fluid disappears. After the fluid has gone, apply antifungal cream as directed.

Mild athlete's foot

Mild athlete’s foot, as the name suggests, is the mild form of this fungal infection. Most cases of mild athlete's foot can easily be treated at home using non-prescription antifungal creams and lotions. You may also take non-prescription antifungal medicines as an athlete’s foot cure. These include miconazole, clotrimazole, tolnaftate and terbinafine. They work by killing the fungus or slowing down its growth.

If you have severe athlete’s foot, your doctor may prescribe you topical antifungal creams along with either oral or topical antibiotic medicines.

2 Signs and symptoms of athlete's foot

The initial symptom of athlete's foot is the appearance of scaly, reddish rashes between the toes.

This region may have itching and burning which spreads to the soles of feet. The feet may develop blisters.

The skin peels or cracks in between the toes and on the soles. Dry skin is also characteristic of infection.

Toe nails become thick and crumble. It is often discolored and separates easily from the nail bed.

Some infections may cause ulcers in the region. One variety of causative organism causes dryness and scaling of the soles that extend to the sides of feet.

This resembles symptoms of eczema or that of dry skin.

The infection can spread from one foot to another and even to hands due to scratching or picking.

Vesicular athlete’s foot usually starts with a sudden outbreak of fluid-filled blisters. They commonly appear at the bottom of the foot, but they can develop on top, sides, and in between the toes as well. This type of athlete’s foot can also develop a bacterial infection.

3 Causes of athlete's foot

Athlete’s foot is caused by fungal infection. The fungus spreads from one person to another through direct contact or by touching contaminated surfaces. This fungus thrives well in warm and humid conditions like damp socks and shoes. It is commonly found in locker room floors, floor around swimming pool, and in showers.

Athlete’s foot is more commonly seen among males when compared to females. Wearing damp socks and tight-fitting shoes is a major risk factor for this infection. Sharing mats, bed linens, and shoes also increases chances of tinea infection.

Higher risk of mild or severe athlete’s foot is associated with walking barefoot in public places like

  • Locker rooms
  • Showers
  • Swimming pools

Having a weak immune system also increases the risk of getting infection.

Is athlete's foot contagious?

Yes, since athlete's foot is caused by a fungus, it is contagious. It can spread from one person to another by walking on contaminated objects. However, some people, even if they come in contact with this infection, do not develop this condition. The exact cause of susceptibility or resistance to fungal infections is not known. 

4 Making a diagnosis

Diagnosis of Athlete's foot is based on review of signs and symptoms. Other tests help to differentiate conditions that may have similar symptoms.

Potassium hydroxide (KOH) testing helps to confirm diagnosis of athlete’s foot. A skin sample from the affected area of the foot is placed in KOH to destroy the normal cells. The fungus is then clearly visible in microscopic analysis of the sample. 

Viewing the affected region under a black light also reveals fungal infection. 

5 Treatment

If you have mild athlete’s foot, you can manage it by yourself at home. All you need to do is take care of your feet and use over-the-counter antifungal medications. However, if you have severe athlete’s foot or you have diabetes, you must see your doctor for proper treatment. If you experience recurrent infections, you should talk to your doctor.

Athlete’s foot treatment is available in the form of non-prescription:

  • Lotions
  • Creams
  • Solutions
  • Powders
  • Sprays
  • Ointments
  • Swabs

Below are some of the over-the-counter topical medications available for athlete’s foot:

  • Terbinafine (Lamisil AT)
  • Miconazole (Desenex)
  • Butenafine (Lotrimin Ultra)
  • Clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF)
  • Tolnaftate (Tinactin)

A typical athlete’s foot treatment may last from 1 to 6 weeks or another week if the infection is recurrent. Prescription medications are suggested when the infection does not respond to athlete's foot cream or over-the-counter medications. Oral antifungal medications are suggested only for severe athlete's foot. These medications have certain side-effects and are also expensive. Therefore, they are used only for severe forms of infection. If you don’t have severe symptoms, you can also try some natural remedies for athlete's foot, after consulting your doctor. For example, you can soak your feet in salt water or vinegar mixed with water to dry up blisters and prevent further infection. Apart from that, some alternative therapies are also available to treat athlete’s foot. For example, applying Tea tree oil on the affected area using cotton swabs or as directed by your doctor can be greatly helpful.

6 Prevention

Some simple steps can help prevent mild and severe athlete's foot:

  • Avoid walking barefoot in public places like locker rooms, showers, and swimming pool
  • Keep feet clean and dry
  • Remove shoes and allow skin to breathe
  • Avoid contact with infected people
  • Ensure use of hygienic and uncontaminated tools in nail salons

Those who have had a fungal infection in the foot should disinfect shoes periodically by using antifungal powder.

Use cotton socks as opposed to other materials.

7 Home remedies for athlete's foot

  1. Tea tree oil: It is considered to be a good natural remedy for treating fungal infection due to its anti-fungal and antiseptic properties. It kills the fungus and prevents it from spreading further.
  2. Grapefruit-seed extract: It is also known for its antifungal properties that can be used to control symptoms.
  3. Garlic and clove: Garlic and clove act as natural anti-fungal and antibacterial agent. If you are experiencing symptoms of athlete’s foot, adding them to your diet may help!
  4. Vinegar: Since vinegar is acidic in nature, it helps destroy fungus. It also stops it from spreading further.
  5. Yogurt: Some yogurts contain probiotics that help kill fungal infections. Buy plain, flavorless yogurt with active bacterial cultures.
  6. Salt: Salt is the simplest, but an effective home remedy for treating athlete’s foot. Soaking your affected feet in a saltwater solution for 5 to 10 minutes can help kill infection-causing fungus.
  7. Tea: Because tea contains natural astringent and tannic acid, it can be useful in controlling fungal infection. Soaking your feet in tea water for half an hour can be an effective athlete’s foot cure.
  8. Hydrogen peroxide: Dunking the affected feet in a hydrogen peroxide solution may also help. Although it will sting if you have cracked feet, it is perfect solution for killing bacteria and fungus.
  9. Lemon: If your feet stink due to athlete’s foot, soaking them in a lemon water mixture for 10-15 minutes once a day may help.
  10. Lavender oil: Apart from having a pleasant smell, lavender oil is also known for its antifungal properties. Add 3 drops of lavender oil to 1 teaspoon of regular carrier oil to make a mixture. Rub this massage oil on the infected area daily for relief.

8 Lifestyle and coping

Lifestyle modifications are necessary in order to cope with Athlete's foot.

Simple self-care measures help to keep the feet dry, clean, and free from fungal or bacterial infections.

  • Remove shoes and expose your feet at home
  • Use cotton socks
  • Dry your feet, especially after using a public shower or swimming pool
  • Avoid walking barefoot in public places
  • Avoid borrowing and using other people’s shoes

9 Risks and complications

There are several risks and complications associated with athlete's foot.

The fungal infection may spread from the feet to other areas such as:

  • Hands
  • Nails
  • Groin

Infections of the toenails are more resistant to treatment. 

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