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Athlete's Foot: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment And Prevention

Athlete's foot (AF), also known as tinea pedis is a fungal infection of the foot, mostly found between the toes. It is named so as the infection is common in athletes and swimmers. The AF can spread to hands or other body parts when a person scratches the infected area and touches other body parts.

AF is not a serious infection and can be treated with antifungal drugs. But it is contagious and may spread through towels, clothing or contaminated floors. People with diabetes and a weak immune system should keep good foot hygiene to avoid the infection as it is very hard to cure in their cases. Take a look at its causes, symptoms and other information. [1]

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Causes Of Athlete’s Foot

The AF is caused by foot fungi named Trichophyton. They are dermatophytes that grow mainly on hair, nails and skin and responsible for similar infection types such as ringworm and jock itch. The fungi usually remain on the skin harmlessly and infect only under certain conditions. When the skin of the foot is clean and dry, their growth is limited but as soon as they find moist and warm conditions (tight shoes, damp socks), they start multiplying and cause AF. [2]

As the area between the toes is moist for most of the times, they find it a better place to multiply. The fungi are mainly found in showers, locker rooms and areas around the swimming pool. A person infected with AF is likely to spread the infection by walking barefooted.

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Symptoms Of Athlete’s Foot

AF starts with mild symptoms and gets severe as the infection progresses. The mild symptoms include: [2]

  • Patches or deep breaks between the toes.
  • Redness of the skin of the foot
  • Itchy skin
  • Burning sensation between toes
  • Peeling of the skin of the feet
  • Dry skin on the sides or soles

Severe symptoms include:

  • Itchy blisters on the feet
  • Pain and swelling due to breaks
  • Spread of the infection to soles or toenails
  • Thick white or yellow toenails
  • Foul smell
  • Pus on the infected areas.
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Risk Factors Of Athlete’s Foot

Wearing tight-fitting, closed-toe shoes or non-breathing footwears.

  • Wearing wet socks for a long time
  • Wearing plastic shoes with no proper air supply
  • Being men [2]
  • Having a weak immune system or diseases such as diabetes. [3]
  • Sharing clothes, shoes, socks or bed with people who may have AF
  • Walking barefooted in moist public places (locker room, showers, swimming pool)
  • Having sweaty feet
  • Keeping feet wet for a longer period
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Complications Of Athlete’s Foot

If remain untreated, the AF can spread to the following areas: [4]

  • Hands: When a person scratches the infected area of the feet and don't wash hands later.
  • Toenails: This can cause severe pain.
  • Groin areas: After sharing infected towels or clothes.
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Diagnosis Of Athlete’s Foot

Diagnosis of AF is usually carried out by physical examination of the infected area. A skin test is instructed by the medical expert to rule out other similar conditions such as psoriasis or dermatitis.

Another method is potassium hydroxide (KOH) test in which a part of the infected skin is taken and placed into a KOH solution. The solution destroys human cells and leaves the fungi cells which are then confirmed by viewing under a microscope. [5]

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Treatment Of Athlete’s Foot

The AF can be treated with the following methods: [6]

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) topical antifungal medications containing antifungal agents such as clotrimazole, ketoconazole, econazole and miconazole.
  • Oral antifungal drugs like itraconazole
  • Oral antibiotics for blisters.
  • Steroid medicines to reduce inflammation
  • Antifungal medications in the form of powders, sprays, gels or creams.

Note: Consult a medical expert or pharmacist before giving medications to elders, young children or pregnant women.

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How To Prevent Athlete’s Foot?

  • Maintain proper feet hygiene. Don't forget to wash between the toes.
  • If your feet are too sweaty, apply antifungal powders to keep them dry. [5]
  • Don't wear tightfitting shoes for too long.
  • Prefer wearing shoes made of leather or canvas or shoes with good ventilation.
  • Keep at least two pair of shoes and wear them on alternate days. This will give shoes enough time to dry out.
  • Wear socks made of cotton or silk.
  • Avoid wearing socks on wet feet.
  • Wear pool slippers while visiting public swimming pools or shower areas.
  • Avoid sharing footwear with others.
  • Keep towel and bedsheets clean and avoid sharing them.
  • If you notice redness or itchiness in the feet, avoid scratching it. Instead, soak them in cold water.
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Common FAQs

1. How do you get rid of athlete's foot fast?

Antifungal creams and talcum powder are the best ways for the speedy recovery of the athlete's foot. Continue applying them for a week or two and you will see the results.

2. What does athlete's foot look like?

Athlete's foot appears like a scaly, red and small blisters between toes or sole of the feet. At first, you will feel itchiness and burning sensation in the area followed by a foul smell and accumulation of pus.

3. Should I wear socks to bed with athlete's foot?

If you have athlete's foot, you can wear socks to bed when sharing a bed with your partner. This may limit the spread of fungi to bedsheet. However, if you walk barefooted the other times, chances of the infection will increase as the fungi may get attached to the floor and spread when your partner walks on them. Consider applying the antifungal powder before wearing socks.

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