Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that develops in the moist areas between your toes and sometimes on other parts of your foot. Athlete’s foot usually causes itching, stinging and burning.
Athlete’s foot, also called tinea pedis, is the most common type of fungal infection. It’s closely related to other fungal infections such as ringworm and jock itch. Although contagious, athlete’s foot often can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal medications.
The signs and symptoms of athlete’s foot can be numerous, although you probably won’t have all of them. They include:
Onychomycosis — a fungal infection of the nail — may develop with or without other signs and symptoms of athlete’s foot.
When to see a doctor
If you have a rash on your foot that doesn’t improve or worsens after you’ve followed home and lifestyle remedies, see your doctor. See your doctor sooner if you notice excessive redness, swelling, drainage or fever, or if you have diabetes and suspect you have athlete’s foot.
Athlete’s foot is closely related to other fungal infections, including ringworm and jock itch. A group of mold-like fungi called dermatophytes causes these infections. These microscopic organisms are normal inhabitants of your skin, and their growth stays in check as long as your skin is clean and dry. However, dematophytes thrive in damp, close environments.
Athlete’s foot thrives in thick, tight shoes that squeeze the toes together and create warm, moist areas between them. Damp socks and shoes and warm, humid conditions also favor the organisms’ growth. Plastic shoes, in particular, provide a welcoming environment for fungal growth and infection.
Athlete’s foot is contagious and can be spread by contact with an infected person or with contact with contaminated surfaces, such as towels, floors and shoes.
You are at higher risk of athlete’s foot if you:
Athlete’s foot can lead to complications, including:
Your family doctor or a skin specialist (dermatologist) can diagnose athlete’s foot. You don’t need any special preparations for an appointment to diagnose athlete’s foot.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your appointment. For athlete’s foot, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
Your doctor will want to determine if your signs and symptoms are caused by athlete’s foot or another skin disorder, such as dermatitis, psoriasis or a low-grade infection of the skin between the toes that causes the skin to split and peel (erythrasma).
Your doctor may take skin scrapings or samples from the infected area and view them under a microscope. This is called a potassium hydroxide (KOH) test. If a sample shows fungi, treatment may include an antifungal medication. If the test is negative, your doctor may examine the area with a Wood’s lamp (black light) to see if there is a reddish fluorescence caused by erythrasma bacteria. If both tests are negative, a sample may be sent to a lab to determine whether it will grow fungi under the right conditions. This test is known as a culture. Your doctor may also order a culture if your condition doesn’t respond to treatment.
If your athlete’s foot is mild, your doctor may suggest using an over-the-counter antifungal ointment, lotion, powder or spray. If your athlete’s foot doesn’t respond, you may need a prescription-strength topical medication or an oral (systemic) medication.
There are numerous over-the-counter (OTC) medications on the market. Medicated powders also will help keep your feet dry. OTC medications include:
If athlete’s foot is severe or doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medicine, you may need a prescription-strength topical or oral medication.
Your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic if you have an accompanying bacterial infection. In addition, your doctor may recommend wet dressings, steroid ointments, compresses or vinegar soaks to help clear up blisters or soggy skin.
Wash and dry the affected area. Then, apply a thin layer of the topical agent once or twice a day for at least two weeks, or according to package directions. If you don’t see an improvement after four weeks, see your doctor.
If your athlete’s foot recurs frequently, your doctor may recommend that you use a medication continuously.
These tips can help you avoid athlete’s foot or ease the symptoms if infection occurs: