Athlete's foot (Tinea pedis) is a skin infection of the foot caused by a fungus known as ringworm. Although it's not dangerous, it's contagious and spreads easily in warm and moist environments. Athletes and gym-goers are more likely to get this infection by walking barefoot in communal showers at gyms and pools.
Athlete’s foot is easily treatable with products you can buy at your local pharmacy. The associated symptoms, though they are often annoying and can sometimes be disruptive to your daily life, usually resolve after a few weeks of treatment.
What are the signs of athlete’s foot?
An athlete’s foot infection can cause cracked skin on the soles of the feet and between toes. You may also see some flaky white patches and red inflamed areas of skin. The affected skin will often feel itchy and sore and you may see some blood from cracks in the skin.
What are the causes of athlete’s foot?
Thousands of different types of bacteria and fungus live on the surface of our skin which acts as a barrier, keeping these microbes out of the body. Sometimes, when this barrier is broken by injuries or small cracks, microbes gain access to the body and cause infection.
Factors affecting the skin’s effectiveness as a barrier can increase the risk of getting athlete’s foot. These include:
- Wet feet, especially if the skin stays wet or becomes wrinkled. This includes excessive sweating of the feet
- Cuts and cracks, often seen in people with eczema
- Walking or standing over an infected area such as communal showers and changing rooms
What can I do to manage athlete's foot?
There are a few things you can do to help treat athlete's foot:
- Avoid scratching affected areas. This may drive the infection deeper into the skin, as well as opening up new cracks, spreading the infection
- Dry your feet after washing, especially between the toes
- Choose socks and shoes that allow your feet to breathe
- Change your socks daily
- Use a clean towel every day and don't share towels with others
As the fungus that causes this infection is quite contagious, these measures will probably not be enough to get rid of athlete's foot on their own. You will also need to use a treatment designed to work on athlete's foot. Consult your pharmacist who will able to help you choose a suitable product and advise you on how to use it.
Which treatments are available for athlete’s foot?
Medicines for athlete’s foot come in a variety of forms, including sprays, creams and powders. These contain an anti-fungal ingredient and are available over the counter. Wash and dry your feet carefully before applying the product and apply a small amount, completely covering the affected area and surrounding skin. Make sure you read the information on the packaging and the leaflet inside for instructions on using the product.
If you think you may be having an allergic reaction to the treatment, stop applying the product immediately and seek advice from your Doctor as soon as possible
When should I see my Doctor?
If your symptoms persist in spite of the above treatments, consider making an appointment with your Doctor.
You should also visit your Doctor if you find that the infection has spread to areas above the feet. Occasionally, the damage to the skin caused by athlete's foot can cause further infections. These secondary infections are usually bacterial (rather than fungal) and often cause more intense symptoms. These may need to be treated with antibiotics. You should see your Doctor if you have symptoms like:
- Increased redness in the skin
- Pain in the skin
If you have diabetes or a condition that lowers your immunity, such as having chemotherapy, visit your Doctor for advice on how to treat your athlete’s foot. If your symptoms persist, your Doctor may consider referring you to a dermatologist for further treatment.
How can I prevent athlete's foot?
A few simple measures are usually enough to significantly decrease your chances of getting athlete's foot:
- Avoid walking barefoot. This is particularly important if your feet are wet or if you have cracked skin. Consider wearing flip flops or plastic sandals in communal showers and changing rooms
- Wash your feet daily and take care to dry your skin carefully, especially between the toes
- Avoid putting on socks when your feet are still wet and change your socks every day. Choose socks made of cotton rather than synthetic fabrics to help your feet breathe
- Ideally, avoid wearing the same shoes for more than two consecutive days. Let shoes dry out before putting them on again
- In clean areas, wear open shoes or flip flops to allow your feet to breathe and remain dry
- Do not share towels with anyone, even family members
Which conditions have similar symptoms to athlete's foot?
If you find that your athlete's foot is not clearing even with treatment, it might be worth considering that your symptoms are caused by something different than a fungal infection, such as:
- Eczema which presents with scaly, dry, cracked skin. It causes itching, soreness and can increases the risk of bacterial infections, especially if you scratch it
- Hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) of the feet. This is most common in teenagers and pregnant women. This condition makes the skin wet and brittle, and, while it does not need treatment with anti-fungals, this condition can increase the likelihood of developing athlete's foot
- Verrucas, corns and calluses cause hard skin which can crack and produce flakes. They may also be painful. Your pharmacist can help you find a suitable product to treat these skin problems
What are the next steps?
- To prevent athlete's foot, avoid walking barefoot in damp communal areas and keep your feet dry
- Ask your pharmacist for advice on treatment options
- Visit your Doctor if symptoms persist or get worse