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Athlete's foot - symptoms and treatment

 

Athlete’s foot is a common skin infection of the feet. The main symptoms are peeling skin and itching, especially between the toes.

Without treatment, athlete’s foot can spread to other parts of the body and can lead to more serious skin infection.  It can also spread to other people.

Causes

Athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis, is caused by a fungus. Warm, damp conditions - like those inside tight-fitting, closed-in shoes - help the fungus to grow.

Athlete’s foot is contagious. It is easily spread by having direct contact with, or sharing items used by, an infected person such as clothing, shoes, towels and mats. 

Athlete’s foot can also be spread by having contact with damp surfaces that have been used by an infected person like showers, bathroom and changing room floors, and around swimming pools.

Risk factors

There is a higher risk of getting athlete's foot if you:

  • Wear damp socks and/or tight-fitting, closed-in shoes often.
  • Share towels, bed sheets, clothes, or shoes with someone who has a fungal infection.
  • Walk barefoot in public areas where the fungus may be present, such as changing rooms, saunas, swimming pools, and shared baths and showers.

Athlete's foot is more common in people who participate in sports because they often wear closed-in footwear, sweat heavily, and their feet are exposed to the surfaces of communal areas like showers and changing rooms that may be used by others with athlete’s foot.

Complications

Athlete’s foot is usually a mild condition. However, it’s important to treat it without delay to relieve symptoms and avoid it spreading to other parts of the body, such as:

  • Hands – Due to scratching or picking infected parts of the feet.
  • Nails – The fungus can infect the toenails and fingernails. Nail infections are more difficult to treat than fungal skin infections.
  • Groin – The infection can spread from the feet to the groin with the fungus travelling via a person’s hands or towel.  Fungal infection of the male groin area is sometimes referred to as "jock itch".

Untreated athlete’s foot can lead to a potentially serious bacterial skin infection (cellulitis). You should see a GP if your foot is red, hot and painful, you have diabetes, or you have a weakened immune system (e.g. due to receiving chemotherapy). 

You should always wash your hands thoroughly after touching affected areas of your foot.

Signs and symptoms

Athlete’s foot usually starts between the toes (especially the outer toes) and can affect one or both feet. Signs and symptoms of athlete’s foot are:

  • Red, peeling, or scaly skin.
  • Itching, stinging, or burning.
  • White, yellow, or greenish appearance.
  • Cracked skin that may bleed.
  • An unpleasant odour.

Athlete's foot can also appear as chronic dryness and scaling on the soles and sides of the feet. It can be mistaken for dry skin, eczema, or psoriasis.

Diagnosis

A doctor or podiatrist can usually diagnose athlete’s foot by looking at the affected area. In some cases, skin scrapings from the infected area might be taken and the sample sent to a lab to test for the athlete’s foot fungus.

Treatment

Creams, powders or sprays available from a pharmacy are usually effective in treating a mild case of athlete’s foot. They usually take a few weeks to work.

Treatment should be started as soon as possible to avoid the infection becoming firmly established and spreading to other parts of the body or other people.

If the infection doesn't respond to pharmacy medicines you should see a GP. A prescription-strength cream or spray may be required. Severe infections can require anti-fungal tablets taken by mouth.

Prevention

To avoid athlete's foot or ease the symptoms if infection occurs:

  • Always dry your feet and between your toes after a bath or shower. Use a separate towel for your feet and wash it regularly.
  • Sprinkle talcum powder, or an anti-fungal powder, on your feet and between toes after having dried them.
  • Expose your feet to the air when you are at home or outside. Wear footwear that is open to the air (i.e. sandals) to prevent spreading the fungus. 
  • Change your socks regularly if your feet get very sweaty.
  • Wear shoes made from light materials that don’t trap in moisture.
  • Try to avoid wearing shoes made of vinyl or rubber.
  • Avoid wearing the same shoes day after day, to give them time to dry after each use.
  • Wear sandals or slides around public pools and in showers and changing rooms.
  • Avoid sharing shoes, socks, and towels with other people.

References

Mayo Clinic (2018). Athlete’s foot (Web Page). Rochester, NY: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/athletes-foot/symptoms-causes/syc-20353841 [Accessed: 10/06/19]
NHS (2018). Athlete’s foot (Web Page). Redditch: National Health Service (NHS) 
England. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Athletes-foot/ [Accessed: 10/06/19]
O’Toole, M.T. (Ed.) (2017). Athlete’s foot. Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions (10th ed.). St Louis, MI: Elsevier.

Updated: July 2019

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