Some days you just can't seem to scratch your itch. No matter how hard you try. If you find yourself anxious to ditch your shoes and socks so you can scratch the skin between your toes, you may have an athlete's foot.
Don't worry - it's a common condition. In fact, around 70% of people develop athlete's foot at some point over the course of their lives. It's not as serious as it may seem. But let's examine it together and see what this unpleasant rash is all about.
Here you will find the following information:
- What is athlete's foot
- Types of athlete's foot
- Symptoms of athlete's foot
- Risk groups
- When to see a doctor
- How do we diagnose athlete's foot
- Athlete's foot prevention
What is Athlete's Foot?
Athlete's foot is one of the most common fungal skin infections. While you don't have to be an athlete to get it, it's pretty common in people who practice intense sports.
Known in the medical practice as tinea pedis, it's usually not dangerous, just irritating. However, if left untreated, it may develop into something far more serious.
The most common cause for the infection is fungi. These fungi can infect your skin under the right conditions. Those conditions include warm, dark, moist places. Like your shoes on a summer day or after a killer workout, for example.
In most cases, athlete's foot affects the soles of the feet or the skin between the toes. When shoes compress the toes, they create a perfect environment for fungal infections.
Types of Athlete's Foot
There are different types of athlete's foot depending on the cause and location of the infection.
Toe web infection
Also known as an interdigital infection, this type of athlete's foot starts off between your toes. It can spread to the rest of your foot or, more rarely, to your hands if you pick at the rash.
The fungi can infect the soles of your feet and spread from there. This is called a moccasin infection as the rash covers the soles, sides, and heels of your foot.
This type of infection is characterized by the presence of blisters. Blisters can burst if you're not careful and aside from being painful, can also cause a bacterial infection to boot.
It's very uncommon, yet possible for your athlete's foot to cause ulcers. These ulcers are extremely susceptible to a secondary bacterial infection. If this symptom presents, it's best to schedule a visit with a foot doctor right away.
Symptoms of Athlete's Foot
Aside from the specific athlete's foot symptoms for each type, there are other common symptoms you're likely to experience. While most of them are not serious, they can affect your quality of life. They include:
- A red, scaly rash
- Bad foot odor
- A burning sensation
- Scaly skin on the soles and sides of your feet
- Ulcers or blisters
These symptoms can advance to your hands and groin if you're not careful.
The infection can also spread to your toenails, which makes it that much harder to treat.
The fungi that cause athlete's foot are from the Trichophyton genus. They are dermatophytes - parasitic fungi that feed on the keratin in your skin and nails. If you stick them under a microscope, they look like tiny worms.
While the thought of microscopic, worm-like organisms munching on your skin and nails is disturbing, there's a silver lining. Dermatophytes are usually restricted to the uppermost layer of your skin's epidermis, which is comprised of dead cells.
The Trichophyton fungi can proliferate in warm, damp, dark conditions. That's why they adore sweaty shoes and socks where they can multiply like crazy.
Wearing tight-fitting, thick shoes increases the likelihood of developing athlete's foot exponentially. This type of shoe creates the perfect conditions for the fungi to rapidly multiply, especially if you're active.
Athlete's foot is pretty contagious so you can also get an infection through contact with an infected person or surface. Walking around barefoot in communal areas such as locker rooms, saunas, swimming pools, and gym showers increases the probability you will come into contact with the Trichophyton fungi and catch athlete's foot.
Sharing shoes, socks, towels, or bed linen with an infected person is another way you can come into contact with the fungi.
Athlete's foot can affect anyone, but some groups tend to be more vulnerable than others.
- The infection tends to be more prevalent among men than women.
- If you practice intense sports, the likelihood of developing a fungal infection increases. Especially if you wear thick, tight-fitting shoes.
- If you have a weakened immune system, you're at a higher risk of developing athlete's foot.
- The risk of complications, such as fungal nail infection, increases with age.
- Diabetics are particularly vulnerable.
When to see a Doctor
Athlete's foot may not be a serious condition, but it's very contagious and can lead to complications.
With this in mind, it's best to see your doctor if your symptoms don't disappear within a few days after you've tried treating them.
Schedule an appointment immediately if you experience more serious symptoms, such as ulcers and blisters. Otherwise, you may develop a secondary bacterial infection.
If you're diabetic, the likelihood of complications increases, so you shouldn't wait in visiting your foot doctor.
How Do We Diagnose Athlete's Foot
In most cases, the process of diagnosing athlete's foot is pretty straightforward.
We start by performing a visual examination of the rash and looking for the telltale signs of fungal infection. We try to rule out other possible conditions before we prescribe a treatment.
In case there's any doubt about what we're dealing with, we may take a small skin sample (don't worry, it's painless) and examine it in the lab.
We'll also ask you diagnostic questions, such as:
- When did you start experiencing symptoms?
- Where did the rash start and what did it look/feel like?
- Have you tried treating it? Does something help? Does something make it worse?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with athlete's foot before?
- Have you spent time in communal areas where athlete's foot is common, such as saunas, swimming pools, and gym showers?
This is not a comprehensive list, but it should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Once we've confirmed the diagnosis, we'll provide medical advice and talk about treatments, as well as possible changes you can make to prevent future infections.
While tinea pedis can be a stubborn skin infection, it's relatively easy to treat. In most cases, over-the-counter athlete's foot treatments will work just fine. Unless there are complications. Then you may need prescription antifungals.
Topical antifungal medication is the primary treatment for tinea pedis. Antifungal sprays and creams are particularly effective. Especially if the infection has been caught in time.
Even if the symptoms disappear, keep using your prescribed treatment for at least two more weeks. This way, you'll prevent a sudden resurgence.
In some cases, we may prescribe oral antifungal medication. For example, to treat chronic or severe infections, or if topical treatments aren't feasible.
If the nails have been infected, they need to be treated separately. Nail treatments usually take longer, so brace yourself.
Home remedies for athlete's foot
There's plenty of over-the-counter creams, lotions, and sprays you can try without prescription. Most of them will help you control the infection, but make sure to visit your podiatrist if symptoms don't subside within a week.
Another way to control the infection is by sprinkling antifungal powder on your feet and in your shoes. It will help keep your socks, feet, and shoes dry and will deal with those pesky little fungi.
Daily application of tea tree oils helps treat athlete's foot. However, it doesn't work for everyone and even when it does work, it takes a long time to do so.
Neem oil also has strong antifungal properties, but it suffers the same downsides as tea tree oil.
Rubbing alcohol should also help ease the symptoms of tinea pedis. You can apply it directly to the skin or soak your feet in a solution of 70% rubbing alcohol and 30% water.
How to Prevent Athlete's Foot
Prevention is the best cure. With this in mind, here's what you can do to prevent future fungal infections:
- Keep your feet clean. Wash them thoroughly every day and make sure you dry them out completely, including between the toes.
- Wear synthetic socks that take moisture away from your feet.
- Change your socks regularly. If you're prone to sweat a lot, change your socks twice a day.
- Keep your feet dry as much as you can. Sweaty feet increase the likelihood of infection.
- Wear comfortable, porous shoes that allow your feet to breathe. Wear sandals when you can.
- Don't wear the same shoes every day. Allow them to dry out completely before you wear them.
- Use an antifungal powder on your feet or in your shoes.
- Don't share shoes, towels, or socks with anyone.
- Avoid walking barefoot in communal areas.
If prevention fails, don't wait and schedule an appointment with one of our podiatrists. We'll give you a hand with your athlete's foot.