What Is It?
Athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis, is a common foot infection caused by fungi called dermatophytes. Found in many different places indoors and outdoors, dermatophytes are especially common in the warm, moist environments of pools, showers, locker rooms and other sports facilities, where people walk with bare feet. Once dermatophytes contaminate the skin of someone’s foot, the warm, moist environment of sweaty socks and shoes encourage them to grow.
Symptoms of athlete’s foot include:
- Intense itching of the feet
- Cracked, blistered or peeling areas of skin, especially between the toes
- Redness and scaling on the soles
In most people, signs of infection are seen on the webbed skin between the toes. In some people, the infection spreads to one or more toenails, causing the nail to appear unusually thick and cloudy yellow.
Your health care provider will ask you about your symptoms and about factors that make you more likely to develop athlete’s foot, such as your use of public sports facilities, clubs or showers. He or she also will ask about your foot care habits, including the type of shoes and socks you wear, what kind of work you do and what you wear on your feet to work.
Your health care provider usually can diagnose athlete’s foot simply by looking at your feet. He or she can confirm the diagnosis by gently scraping some flakes of skin from a scaly portion of your foot onto a slide. The dermatophytes that cause the infection often show up under a microscope.
Response to treatment usually takes several weeks to months. Even after proper medical treatment, the infection can recur easily if your feet are exposed again to fungi and sweaty, warm conditions. For this reason, many people have persisting and recurring athlete’s foot infection for many years. Successfully curing the infection often requires changes in how you care for your feet and what you wear on your feet.
Prevention is as important as medications in treating athlete’s foot because of frequent recurrences. In general, you can help to prevent athlete’s foot by keeping your feet clean and dry. More specifically, you can try the following:
- Wash your feet thoroughly every day and wear a clean pair of socks after your bath or shower.
- Take time to dry your feet, including each toe, thoroughly (especially the webbed area between the toes) after you bathe, shower or swim.
- If you use public pools or showers, wear thongs or sandals to prevent your feet from being exposed to floors contaminated with fungi.
- Choose leather shoes rather than vinyl, since leather lets feet “breathe” so they are more likely to stay dry.
- Wear cotton socks to absorb sweat.
- If possible, don’t wear the same pair of shoes for two days in a row. Give shoes a 24-hour break between wearing to air out and dry out.
- Don’t share shoes.
Doctors usually begin treating athlete’s foot with an antifungal medication applied to the feet. Theses medications include ciclopirox (Loprox), clotrimazole (Lotrimin, Mycelex), econazole (Spectazole), ketoconazole (Nizoral), miconazole (Micatin), naftifine (Naftin), oxiconazole (Oxistat), sulconazole (Exelderm), terbinafine (Lamisil), terconazole (Terazol), and tolnaftate (Desenex, Tinactin and others). Some are available without a prescription. Many weeks of treatment may be necessary. For people with long standing or recurring athlete’s foot infections, topical antifungal drugs may relieve symptoms without actually curing the infection.
Medications by mouth can be more successful at curing an infection. However, you still can be susceptible to recurrences, and oral medications may be more likely to cause side effects. These require a prescription and include griseofulvin (Fulvicin, Grifulvin, Grisactin), itraconazole (Sporanox) and terbinafine (Lamisil).
When To Call A Professional
If you think you have athlete’s foot, try a nonprescription antifungal ointment, cream or powder. Keep your feet as dry and clean as possible. If these measures do not help, make an appointment to see your doctor. Call your doctor for a more urgent evaluation and treatment if you see spreading redness or have fevers.
If you have diabetes and any foot problems, see your doctor promptly. People with diabetes easily get skin infections, so they should see a doctor as soon as an abnormality appears.
People with new or short term symptoms of athlete’s foot usually can be cured after several weeks of treatment with a medication applied to the feet. Chronic or recurring athlete’s foot infections also can be cured, but may require significant changes in foot care as well as several weeks of treatment. In more severe cases, an oral medication may be used. Even after successful treatment, you remain at risk of re-infection if you do not follow prevention guidelines. Relapses are common.
by Martin A. Harms, M.D.
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.