What is Athlete’s Foot?

Athlete’s foot is the common name for the medical condition officially called tinea pedis. Athlete’s foot is a generalized infection of the surface skin of the foot. Caused by a fungus, the infection may be of long or short duration. It may also recur after treatment, particularly if the treatment protocol and after care are not scrupulously followed.

Symptoms of Athlete’s Foot

In the early stages of an infection, athlete’s foot might easily be mistaken for the kind of transitory discomfort that comes without warning but leaves on its own, with nobody ever the wiser as to what exactly was causing the problem. Early symptoms include redness and itchiness of infected skin areas. However, redness and itchiness alone are not definitive signs that athlete’s foot is present. These could be caused by a multitude of other problems, including something as simple and easy to solve as an allergy to additives in the detergents used to wash the family socks.

athlete's foot little toe

If the infection truly is due to athlete’s foot, the symptoms will move beyond redness and itchiness. As the tinea infection progresses, skin will begin to crack, flake, and even peel. In most cases where tinea infections settle into the foot area, these symptoms are most pronounced in the skin area between the toes, but they may occur on the soles, heels, arch, and top of the foot as well.

Burning and stinging are also common symptoms. Furthermore, severe infections can include blisters. These may crack open and ooze; if that happens the liquid oozing out will also probably form a crust. You may experience a great temptation to pick at this crust to get it off your body, but beware: you will just cause the blister to ooze again and form a new crust, and in the meantime, you are risking the spread of the tinea infection onto your hands as well. This is particularly likely to happen if you have cracked nails or any small injuries on your hands, as these will provide the fungus with an ideal place in which to settle and grow. Never forget that athlete’s foot is highly contagious and can easily spread to areas besides the feet and toes alone.

Should the fungus spread to your palms, symptoms will be similar to those described above. If it settles into your toe nails or finger nails, further symptoms include discoloration and thickening of the nail area. In severe nail infection cases, the nails themselves may break down and crumble, a situation which is highly unsightly but also painful and inconvenient as well.

What Causes Athlete’s Foot?

It may surprise you to learn that the human body is at all times a host to a great many different micro organisms. Among these are different varieties of both fungi and bacteria. In some circumstances these micro organisms prove useful in carrying out certain bodily functions. Digestion, for example, could not proceed without the help of bacteria in the stomach.

athlete's foot

However, not all microorganisms are helpful or even healthful. When the usual ones multiply out of control, or foreign ones not usually present gain a foothold, it leads to the condition termed “infection.” Athlete’s foot is such an infection; it results from the growth of a specific fungus which tends to settle into warm, moist areas of the body. The feet are such an area, especially when enclosed in socks and shoes for extended periods of time; the area between the toes is particularly warm and moist.

Athlete’s foot can occur in other locations, though it is called by different names in those cases. Regardless, if it is a tinea infection, the same microorganism is causing the difficulty. Other areas that can suffer from tinea infections include the hands, area between the fingers, and the crotch zone. In the latter case, the infection is referred to as “jock itch,” but it derives from the same infectious fungal organism as athlete’s foot.

Some of  the causes of athlete’s foot include the following:

  • Excessive sweating, which provides a moist environment in which the fungus can thrive
  • Allowing your feet to stay wet for extended periods of time
  • Keeping feet enclosed in shoes that cannot “breathe;” (plastic-lined shoes are particularly bad in this respect)
  • Acquiring minor nail injuries or areas of broken skin (the fungus can settle into these)
  • Touching infected areas on someone experiencing a tinea infection

This last cause also includes touching anything that has come into contact with infected skin. Because athlete’s foot and other tinea infections are so highly contagious, great care must be taken to avoid infecting other people or acquiring infections from them. Family members experiencing athlete’s foot or similar fungal infection issues should not share shoes and socks, for example.
It may not be possible to avoid sharing the shower, but care should be taken to disinfect it after use. Stepping on a shower surface that has previously been used by an athlete’s foot sufferer and not disinfected is a primary way in which the infection is passed along. The same strictures hold true for other moist surfaces such as the area around pools and hot tubs. It’s also easier to contract (and harder to get rid of athlete’s foot) in places where there is high humidity (the tropics, say).

How to Prevent Athlete’s Feet

While it is not possible to completely prevent athlete’s foot in every circumstance, the following guidelines will serve to minimize your chances of it finding your feet (or other body parts) a hospitable environment in which to settle and grow:

  • At least two times every day, cleanse your feet thoroughly. Use soap and warm water and be sure to clean in between each and every toe. Rinse just as thoroughly, since letting soap sit on the skin surface can lead to non-fungus based irritation. When you have finished each cleansing, dry your feet completely. This last step is very important.  A clean but moist foot will make an excellent breeding ground for tinea pedis infections.
  • Wear a new pair of socks every day. Do not wear the same pair twice without washing them, as they will be slightly moist from the first wearing.
  • Keep your feet dry when you can. Pay particular attention to the area between the toes. Take off your shoes and socks several times each day to allow your feet an opportunity to air out and become dry. Feet trapped in shoes are habitually moist. If your daytime job will not permit you to spend any time barefoot, make it a practice to go barefoot at home in the evenings. Your feet will thank you for it.
  • Keeping your feet dry includes being sure to towel them off thoroughly after any water based activity such as swimming, hot tubbing, skiing, or parasailing.
  • To avoid catching an infection, never stand barefoot on a surface used by the general public, such as a shower at a gym. Wear flip flops or another style of sandal. This is a good practice even in private homes, particularly when a member of the family is suffering or susceptible to athlete’s foot infections.
  • Avoid socks made of materials that tend to trap moisture, like nylon. If you are a woman, be particularly aware that pantyhose in all their incarnations (knee highs, thigh highs, full hose) are quite likely to trap moisture against the skin. The best materials for socks is 100% cotton, but do remember to wash them frequently, as described above.

Treatments for Athlete’s Foot

There are a number of very effective treatments for Athlete’s Foot. The condition is quite common, especially in places with a lot of humidity.

Diagnosis (How to Tell if You Have Athlete’s Foot)

The first step in treating athlete’s foot is to properly diagnose it. In most cases a physician or other health care professional will be able to diagnose a tinea infection based on the surface appearance of the infected skin. In some cases, one of several tests may be performed to confirm the diagnosis.
If a skin culture test is used, flecks of skin are removed from the infected area and are cultured in a lab. A skin lesion biopsy is a little different and involves scraping skin cells off so they can be examined under a microscope, where a visual confirmation of the fungus can be obtained.

Self Care Treatments

When the diagnosis has been made, the usual course of treatment involves antifungal agents since athlete’s foot is primarily a fungus infection. There are actually antifungal medicines available over the counter at major pharmacies, discount stores, and even supermarkets. There are also any number of creams and powders which claim to treat athlete’s foot but are perfectly useless.

To be sure that you purchase a treatment option that is likely to be of benefit, look for the words “active ingredients” on the label and see what the cream or powder really contains in the way of medicine. Active ingredients known to reduce the spread of athlete’s foot and kill off the underlying micro organism include  miconazole, clotrimazole, ortolnaftate. If you do not see these ingredients listed, put the product back and keep looking.

Treatment for athlete’s foot must be followed in a routine, methodical manner for best results. Creams or powders should be applied to the affected areas of the foot at least twice each day and possibly more often; the best practice is to follow the exact advice of your health care professional. If you have not consulted a professional before beginning treatment using over the counter preparations, be sure to follow the directions on the label of the powder or cream chosen.

It is extremely important that treatment not stop when the infection appears to have cleared up. If you stop then, it is likely to recur because fungal organisms are still present, just not in large enough numbers to make the infection obvious to the naked eye. Given the chance, the fungus will reproduce and re-colonize the feet again as soon as it can.

To avoid a recurrence, continue over the counter treatment for a full two weeks after it appears to you that the infection has completely gone away. This maximizes your chances that the infection will be cured for good. Keep in mind that it has only maximized your chances; there is no guarantee that you won’t see a recurrence. Some people are more susceptible than others to athlete’s foot and have a harder time getting rid of it completely.

Apart from using an antifungal medicine, the other thing that athlete’s foot sufferers can do as a form of treatment is to develop habits that give the fungus very little opportunity to thrive.

Stronger Treatment Options

In most cases, athlete’s foot can be successfully treated with antifungal creams and powders combined with the common sense preventive measures already discussed. If it returns, the self care and prevention guidelines should be followed again, perhaps with more attention to detail, particularly when it comes to the issue of keeping the feet clean and dry.

However, in the case of severe infection, the self care regimen may simply not be effective enough to provide relief. In this case a healthcare professional should definitely be consulted. The same is true if infections seem to recur on an ongoing basis.

A doctor or nurse practitioner can recommend and prescribe antifungal medicines that are not available over the counter. These stronger medicines are available in a variety of forms, including both pills and topical treatments. Prescription creams to treat athlete’s foot usually include ingredients such as ketoconazole or terbinafine.

A danger of severe tinea pedis infections is that when skin is in a vulnerable condition due to the action of the fungus, other microorganisms that act in an opportunistic manner may also take hold in the infected area. These are known as secondary infections because they only occur at times when a main infection is also present. Secondary infections may sprout up seemingly on their own, or they may be a direct result of patient action, such as scratching in order to gain relief from the discomfort caused by the main infection. Opening up the skin by nicking it makes it vulnerable to disease organisms in the environment.

Secondary infections in many cases cannot be treated with success using home remedies or over the counter medications. Courses of antibiotics, available only by prescription, may well be needed.