Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis)
What causes it?
Tight-fitting trainers are a common cause of athlete’s foot. Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection of the foot caused by parasites on the skin called dermatophytes. Dermatophytes can be divided into three groups according to their favourite hosts:
- fungi preferring soil (geophile)
- fungi preferring animals (zoophile)
- and fungi preferring humans (anthropophile).
Athlete’s foot is usually caused by anthropophile fungi. The most common species are Microsporum, Epidermophyton and Trichophyton. These account for 90 per cent of all skin fungal infections, commonly referred to as ringworm.
The medical terms for athlete’s foot are tinea pedis or dermatophytosis palmaris, plantaris and interdigitalis – the latter indicates that, in addition to the soles and toes of the feet, the palms of the hands can also become infected.
What causes it?
We all have one or more of the fungi that can cause athlete’s foot on our bodies. They feed on dead skin cells and are usually harmless.
Athlete’s foot is a common condition in young people and adults. The fungi love warm, moist places with the result they are primarily a problem for people who wear tight-fitting trainers or don’t dry their feet properly.
The condition is contagious. It can be spread by direct skin-to-skin contact and indirectly through towels, shoes, floors, etc.
What are the symptoms?
There are two variants of the condition.
The infection is caused by one of the most common fungi.
Who is at increased risk?
- Young people, especially if they wear trainers.
- People who are forced to wear tight-fitting rubber footwear because of their job.
What can be done at home?
- Wash the feet every day and allow them to dry properly before putting on shoes and socks. You should use a separate towel to dry your feet. To avoid passing the infection on you should not share these towels with anyone else.
- Wear socks made of cotton or wool, and change them at least twice a day or when they have become damp.
- Avoid wearing shoes which are made of synthetic materials. Wear sandals or leather shoes instead.
- Powder the feet and the inside of the shoes with an antifungal powder.
How is it diagnosed?
- The diagnosis can usually be made on the basis of the appearance of the foot.
- The doctor may take a scrape for microscopy and culture.
- The condition can sometimes disappear simply through being exposed to fresh air, but medical treatment is usually required.
- An infection of the foot may be accompanied by an infection of the nails.
How is athlete’s foot treated?
- Athlete’s foot can be treated locally with antifungal creams, sprays, liquids and powders that are available from pharmacists without a prescription. Imidazole antifungals are most effective and include clotrimazole (eg Canesten AF) and miconazole (eg Daktarin). Other antifungals include zinc undecenoate (Mycota), terbinafine (Lamisil AT) and tolnaftate (Mycil).
- Treatment should be continued for two weeks after the symptoms have disappeared to ensure the infection has been treated effectively.
- Some antifungal creams also contain hydrocortisone, eg Daktacort HC. These are useful when the skin is particularly red and inflamed, as the hydrocortisone reduces inflammation and irritation. They should not be used for longer than seven days. They are not suitable for children under 10 or during pregnancy and breastfeeding, unless prescribed by a doctor. After seven days, treatment should be continued with a plain antifungal.
- If the athlete’s foot has not started to respond after two weeks’ antifungal treatment you should see your doctor, who may prescribe a stronger antifungal cream or antifungal tablets.
Based on a text by Dr Flemming Andersen and Dr Ulla Søderberg, consultant dermatologist
Last updated 01.04.2005
Don’t let the name fool you. Athletes aren’t the only ones who get the itchy condition known as athlete’s foot. Anyone can get athlete’s foot if two things happen:
- Their bare feet are exposed to a kind of fungus.
- That fungus has the right environment to grow – like hot and sweaty sneakers!
A Fungus Is a Microorganism
Athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis (say: tin-ee-uh peh-dus), is a common skin infection that is caused by a fungus (say: fun-gus), a plant-like microorganism (say: my-kro-or-guh-niz-um) too small to be seen by the naked eye. This fungus eats old skin cells. And plenty of them can be found on the feet!
Although athlete’s foot occurs mostly among teen and young adult guys, kids and women can get it, too. People with sweaty or damp feet are at risk. Walking barefoot where others also walk barefoot is one way the fungus can get on your feet in the first place. That’s why your mom or dad might say to wear your sandals when you’re showering in a public shower.
Why Is It Called Athlete’s Foot?
Athlete’s foot gets its name because athletes often get it. Why? The fungus that causes it can be found where athletes often are. The fungus grows on the warm, damp surfaces around pools, public showers, and locker rooms. People walk barefoot on these surfaces and fungus ends up on their feet. Or they might use a damp towel that has the athlete’s foot fungus on it.
But just having the fungus on your feet isn’t enough to cause the infection. The infection happens if conditions are right for the fungus to grow. The fungus likes it wet, so:
- Dry your feet properly after swimming, showering, or bathing.
- Do not wear tight shoes when your feet are sweaty.
- Do not wear the same pair of shoes or socks day after day.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Cases of athlete’s foot can be mild to severe. A person who has it may have a rash that itches and burns. Other signs and symptoms include:
- bumps on the feet
- cracked, blistered, or peeling areas, often between the toes
- redness and scaling on the soles of the feet
- skin between the toes may look “cheesy” and have an unpleasant odor
- a rash that spreads to the instep (inside part of the foot)
- raw skin from scratching (try not to scratch!)
Athlete’s foot may spread to other parts of your foot, including your toenails. It can also infect other parts of the body – such as the groin (commonly called jock itch) and underarms – but only if someone scratches the infection and touches these places.
What Will the Doctor Do?
A doctor such as a dermatologist (say: dur-muh-tal-uh-jist), a skin doctor, or podiatrist (say: puh-dye-uh-trist), a foot doctor, can figure out if you have athlete’s foot. It could be something other than athlete’s foot, too. Kids can get other foot conditions or might be allergic to a material in the shoes they’re wearing.
But a doctor will be able to tell by looking at the skin on your feet. Your doctor may swab or scrape off a skin sample to test for fungus or for bacteria. Don’t worry, this won’t hurt – you have lots of extra layers of skin on your feet!
Treatment is usually simple. For mild cases, your doctor may have you apply a powder that contains medicine or cream that kills fungus, which should make your feet feel better in a few days. Sometimes you’ll need to use the medicine for up to a month to get rid of the athlete’s foot completely.
You’ll also need to keep your feet dry and keep your shoes off as much as possible because fungus can’t easily grow in dry, open air. If doing these things doesn’t help clear up the infection, your doctor may then prescribe a stronger medicine. This one will be the kind you swallow, not just something that you apply to your feet.
It’s important to see a doctor about your athlete’s foot because if it goes untreated, it will continue to spread, making your feet feel really itchy and uncomfortable and will become harder to get rid of. Also, more serious infections can also develop on your feet.
Athlete’s Foot Prevention
Many people will develop athlete’s foot at least once in their lives. Some will get it more often. To help avoid it:
- Wash your feet every day.
- Dry your feet thoroughly, especially between the toes.
- Sometimes go barefoot at home – especially at night.
- Avoid wearing tight or synthetic footwear that doesn’t allow your feet to “breathe.”
- Wear sandals around pool areas, public showers, and gyms to steer clear of the fungus.
- Wear socks that soak up wetness. Cotton is one material that does this.
- Change your socks every day (or more frequently) if they get damp.
- Ask your parent to buy antifungal powder to put in your sneakers or shoes.
- Spray your shoes with a disinfectant and set them in out in the sun to help kill germs.
- Don’t share towels or footwear.
- Keep home bathroom surfaces clean – especially showers and tubs.
Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: December 2004