Athlete's Foot

Athlete's Foot Facts

Athlete's foot symptoms include itching, sores between toes, and painful lesions.
Athlete's foot symptoms include itching, sores between toes, and painful lesions.

Athlete's foot refers to a fungal skin eruption that is confined to the foot in both athletes and nonathletes. It can occur anywhere on the foot, including the sole, toe webs, and back of the foot.

"Athlete's foot" is a commonly used popular term that can refer to any skin inflammation of the foot in an athlete. While this frequently is a result of fungal infections, this is not the strict definition of this entity.

Symptoms include itching, sores between toes, scaly white skin, reddish soles of the feet, and painful lesions. 

If you develop severe pain, redness, or swelling, notice a pus-like drainage, see large blisters on your foot, or develop a fever, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Athlete's Foot Causes

Dermatitis affecting the foot can be caused by contact allergens, irritants, sweat and rash (intertrigo), poorly fitting shoes, psoriasis, and interdigital bacterial toe web infections, and fungal infections.

Fungi (either yeasts or molds) cause athlete's foot.

  • These fungi can be contracted by sharing the shoes or socks of an infected person.
  • They need a warm moist environment to flourish and can be found growing on the floors of locker rooms and public showers, and in swimming pools and whirlpools.
  • Athlete's foot seems to be relatively uncommon in humans who rarely wear closed shoes. It is most common is older adult males.

Athlete's Foot Symptoms and Signs

  • Most commonly, athlete's foot is characterized by cracking and itchy, moist, white, scaly lesions or sores between the toes. It frequently spreads to the sole of the foot.
  • Another type of athlete's foot is a dry, scaly form that causes a reddish "moccasin-like" area over the soles of the feet. This type often affects both feet.
  • Less frequently, this infection may involve painful blistering lesions.

When to Seek Medical Care for Athlete's Foot

If your athlete's foot inhibits your normal daily activities, you should seek medical attention. If it does not bother you and is only a cosmetic annoyance, then a visit to a medical professional may not be necessary.

A simple fungal infection such as athlete's foot can become "super-infected" with bacteria. If this should happen, the rash will become increasingly painful and red. Your foot may become swollen, and you may develop blisters and even open sores in the infected area. These are indications that you may need oral antibiotics and will need to call your doctor.

It is unlikely that athlete's foot would ever become severe enough that a trip to a hospital's emergency department is required. However, if you have diabetes or any other type of illness that will make it hard for your body to fight off an infection, athlete's foot may become a more serious skin problem.

If you develop severe pain, redness, or swelling, notice a pus-like drainage, see large blisters on your foot, or develop a fever, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Diagnosis of Athlete's Foot

The accurate diagnosis of athlete's foot can usually be made simply by looking at the rash. The diagnosis can also be confirmed by looking at scrapings of the infected area of the foot under a microscope. The doctor will see microscopic fungal elements on the slide.

If the doctor suspects a secondary bacterial infection, he will prescribe the proper antibiotic.

Home Remedies for Athlete's Foot

  • Many over-the-counter antifungal medications can be applied to the affected area. These creams should be used sparingly but regularly, at least once a day. An application the size of a chocolate chip should be adequate to cover the entire bottom of your foot.
  • It is important to keep your feet clean and dry. Wear clean, absorbent socks made of natural fibers, such as cotton, and change them during the day if your feet become moist or sweaty.
  • If possible, remove the insoles of shoes and sneakers to allow them to dry out over night.
  • Dusting the inside of your shoes and socks with talcum powder or a medicated powder such as Zeasorb-AF will help to decrease the moisture level.
  • Alternate wearing different pairs of shoes to allow them to dry out for a day or two at a time.
  • If you plan to see your physician for diagnosis and treatment of your athlete's foot, stop using any antifungal medication for at least two weeks, as it could inhibit an accurate diagnosis.

Medications and Treatment for Athlete's Foot

Over-the-counter antifungal creams are sufficient for treating most cases of athlete's foot. Apply them as directed to the toes and foot. Common brands include clotrimazole (Lotrimin) and terbinafine (Lamasil).

If the topical antifungal medications do not clear up the infection, your doctor may prescribe an oral antifungal medication.

If you are unsure of your diagnosis and/or you plan to visit a physician within the next month, the application of 1% hydrocortisone cream purchased over the counter would be a reasonable therapeutic tactic. Since many of the causes of foot dermatosis are not infections, they may respond to this medication. Moreover, it will enhance your doctor's ability to find fungal organisms should they be the cause.

Prevention of Athlete's Foot

Simple precautions may help.

  • Wear sandals in public locker rooms and swimming areas.
  • Do not wear someone else's shoes, especially if that person has athlete's foot.
  • Thoroughly clean home showers and floors where family members walk barefooted to avoid spreading the fungus.

Prognosis of Athlete's Foot

Most cases of athlete's foot go away within a few weeks. More severe cases may take a month or even longer.

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Rash is a general, nonspecific term that describes any visible skin outbreak. Rashes are very common in all ages, from infants to seniors, and nearly everyone will have some type of rash at some point in their life. There are a wide variety of medical diagnoses for skin rashes and many different causes. It is not possible to fully cover every type of rash in this type of article. Therefore, special mention has been given here to some of the most common types of rashes. A dermatologist is a medical provider who specializes in diseases of the skin and may need to be consulted for rashes that are difficult to diagnose and treat.

Robbins CM, et al. "Tinea Pedis." Medscape. Feb. 22, 2018.