Athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis, is a type of fungal infection of the feet. It’s also known as ringworm of the foot (the medical name for ringworm is tinea).
It typically occurs in people whose feet have become sweaty while wearing tight-fitting shoes.
Athlete’s foot is estimated to occur in 15 to 25 percent of the population.right up arrow
Signs and Symptoms of Athlete’s Foot
The most common symptoms of athlete’s foot include a scaly rash that usually causes an itching and burning sensation around the affected area, often between the toes.
The “moccasin” variety of athlete’s foot causes dryness and scaling on the soles of the feet. This can also extend up the side of the foot and be mistaken for eczema or dry skin.right up arrow
Athlete’s foot causes several symptoms that affect the feet, including:
Red and itchy skin
Mild scaling of the skin, which may cover small areas or the entire sole of the foot
Painful cracking (fissuring) of the skin, typically a result of severe scaling
Thickening of the soles of the feet
The fungal infection can also spread to the toenails, causing them to discolor, thicken, or crumble.
Athlete’s foot can damage the skin and leave it open for bacterial infections, such as cellulitis, to develop.
If you develop a rash on your foot that doesn’t improve within two weeks of starting self-care with an over-the-counter antifungal ointment or spray, talk to your doctor.
Although the infection is generally minor, it can be more serious if you have diabetes.right up arrow If you have diabetes and think you have athlete’s foot, talk to your doctor. You should also talk to your doctor if you notice excessive redness, swelling, drainage, or fever.right up arrow
These symptoms can be a sign of a secondary infection that could spread and cause serious health complications.
Causes and Risk Factors of Athlete’s Foot
Athlete’s foot may be caused by several different types of fungi, including yeasts.
Most commonly, fungi called dermatophytes — which require keratin for growth and frequently lead to skin diseases — can cause the foot infection.
In particular, Trichophyton rubrum and Trichophyton mentagrophytes often cause the condition. Epidermophyton floccosum is also a dominant species behind athlete’s foot.right up arrow
Dermatophytes also cause the skin infections ringworm and jock itch.
In the case of athlete’s foot, the fungi grow in the top layer of skin (the epidermis) and first enter the skin through small cracks.
The microbes require moisture and warmth to grow and spread.
Athlete’s foot is contagious, so it’s possible to get the infection from touching the affected skin of someone who has it, even if they don’t have an active case.
In addition, you can get athlete’s foot if you have poor hygiene, such as if you:
Don’t wash and dry your feet after exercising, or after your feet get wet (including from sweat)
Wear damp socks or tight-fitting shoes
Share mats, rugs, bed linens, clothes, or shoes with someone who has it
Walk barefoot in public areas such as locker rooms, saunas, swimming pools, and showers
Men are also more likely to develop athlete’s foot.right up arrow
How Is Athlete’s Foot Diagnosed?
Your doctor may be able to diagnose athlete’s foot simply by looking at it.
The diagnosis can also be confirmed by your doctor by taking a thorough patient history.
In some cases, to rule out other conditions, your doctor may take a skin sample from your foot for lab analyses. If these tests are needed, they may include:right up arrow
A KOH test
A skin culture
A skin biopsy
In a KOH test, your doctor will use a needle or another tool to scrape samples from your skin and examine them under a microscope. Then a solution containing potassium hydroxide (KOH) is added to the samples to dissolve the cellular material to reveal any fungi.
For a skin culture, your doctor will use a cotton swab to collect a sample from the affected area for lab testing.
A skin biopsy can also be used to identify the specific fungus causing your athlete’s foot. It’s also usually performed in your doctor’s office, under local anesthetic.
It usually takes about two weeks to receive results for these tests.
Prognosis of Athlete’s Foot
Athlete’s foot usually responds well to self-care, although it can come back.
If you have a health condition that places you at increased risk for infections — such as diabetes — long-term treatment with antifungal medication and preventive measures may be necessary.
The infection can also spread to the toenails, causing them to crack.
Duration of Athlete’s Foot
Your athlete’s foot symptoms should go away within two to four weeks of self-care. However, if they don’t, talk to your doctor.
You should also talk to your doctor immediately if your foot becomes swollen and warm to the touch or if you see red marks or pus or experience pain or fever. These are signs of a possible bacterial infection.
Treatment and Medication Options for Athlete’s Foot
Athlete’s foot is highly treatable with nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Your chosen treatment should be used for 2 to 4 weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).right up arrow
OTC antifungal creams, gels, lotions, sprays, and powders for athlete’s foot should contain one of the following active ingredients:
Your doctor may also recommend prescription oral antifungal medicines — examples include terbinafine or itraconazole — or oral antibiotics for any bacterial infections that may develop.
There are also prescription topical creams designed to kill the fungus that causes athlete’s foot.
How to Prevent and Treat 8 Common Skin Problems
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
For athlete’s foot, some people swear by home remedies such as tea tree oil or footbaths that contain certain herbal products. However, there have been very few studies evaluating the effectiveness of these remedies for athlete’s foot, and what few exist have yielded conflicting results.
A study published in the Australasian Journal of Dermatology found that a 50 percent tea tree oil solution cured athlete’s foot in about two-thirds of people. The only side effect was minor skin irritation, and that affected nearly 4 percent of study participants.right up arrow
In addition to tea tree oil, a compound in garlic called ajoene has been shown to have antifungal properties, and some research suggests that it’s effective against tinea pedis.right up arrow However, in the United States, this compound can be found only as an ingredient in garlic supplements, and it’s unclear whether these products
can help with athlete’s foot.
Prevention of Athlete’s Foot
Steps you can take to prevent athlete’s foot include:right up arrow
Keeping feet clean and dry
Washing your feet with soap after exercising
Avoiding wearing heavy, closed shoes or thick socks
Changing socks often
Making sure socks are washed between uses
Using antifungal foot powder on feet and in shoes
Wearing flip-flops in gym showers or locker rooms to avoid contact with fungi
Airing your feet out by taking your shoes off, or wearing sandals, as often as possible
Avoiding public swimming pools and public showers
Not sharing with others items used during exercise (equipment, towels, etc.)
Try wearing only cotton socks, which are more effective at absorbing sweat. If possible, choose footwear made with breathable materials, such as leather. Shoes made of vinyl and similar materials can retain sweat and create an environment for fungi to grow. When you’re doing laundry, consider using hot water and bleach, which can kill fungi in ways detergent can’t.
Complications of Athlete’s Foot
Athlete’s foot infection can spread to other parts of your body, such as:
If you scratch or pick at the infected areas of your feet, you run the risk of developing a similar infection on your hands.
In addition, the fungi that cause athlete’s foot can also infect your toenails — and this area can be more resistant to treatment.right up arrow
Finally, the condition known as jock itch may be caused by the same fungus responsible for athlete’s foot, and it’s common for the infection to spread from the feet to the groin via your hands or a towel.
The affected area of your foot can also become infected with bacteria in addition to fungus. If this occurs, your foot may become red or swollen and you may experience pain.
If you develop these symptoms, call your doctor immediately.
Research and Statistics: Who Has Athlete’s Foot/How Many People Have Athlete’s Foot
As mentioned above, as many as 25 percent of people have the condition at any given time.right up arrow
Athlete’s foot is believed to be more common in men than in women, although there are no exact statistics for prevalence based on gender.
Related Conditions and Causes of Athlete’s Foot
Athlete’s foot is closely related to other fungal infections, including ringworm and jock itch.
Ringworm of the body (also called tinea corporis) doesn’t come from a worm. It appears as a red and itchy rash that takes the shape of a circle with clearer skin in the middle — hence the name.
Ringworm spreads by direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person or animal, including household pets. Mild ringworm usually responds to antifungal medications applied to the skin, but more severe infections may need treatment with prescription oral medications.
Similarly, jock itch (also called tinea cruris) is a fungal infection that causes an itchy rash in areas of your body, such as your groin, that tend to be warm and moist. Although often uncomfortable, it usually isn’t serious.
Resources We Love
The American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society maintains FootcareMD.org, a site that provides comprehensive information on a variety of conditions affecting the feet (it also includes a symptom checker).
The American Podiatric Medical Association’s site is another trustworthy source of information on conditions affecting the feet, such as diabetes.