Is Your Itchy Foot Athlete’s foot?

Know the signs, symptoms, and how to treat it. Plus how to stop getting this very common fungal infection.

What is tinea pedis?

Pro Tip

Tinea pedis is a superficial fungal infection involving the skin of the foot that is easily treated, but often recurs. It does not mean you are dirty or do not take good care of your skin. The fungus responsible for causing the infection is everywhere. —Dr. Mollie MacCormack

Tinea pedis, or “athlete’s foot,” is a common, treatable, fungal infection of the skin on the foot. It usually starts between the toes, but can spread to other areas. Infected skin typically becomes itchy, red, and flaky.

Damp and sweaty feet provide an ideal environment for fungal growth. Fortunately, athlete’s foot can usually be cleared up with simple behavioral changes and an over-the-counter topical antifungal medication.

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What does tinea pedis feel like?

The most common symptoms of athlete’s foot are itching and burning between the toes of one or both feet.

You may notice a new foot odor or changes to the skin between the toes, like erosions and scaling. Erosions are areas where the skin has worn away. It may be pink or painful. Scaling is when the skin dries, flakes, and falls off.

You may also notice blistering, especially in the spaces between the toes.

Other symptoms you may have

These symptoms are less common, but may still occur in athlete’s foot.

  • Ulceration: Area where the skin has worn away revealing raw, red tissue below. These may occur in severe athlete’s foot.
  • Pustules: Pus-filled inflamed bumps or blisters.
  • Hyperkeratosis: Thickening and flaking of skin on the foot.
  • Spread to multiple locations: In severe cases, athlete’s foot may cover the entire bottom or top of the foot.

Dr. Rx

Two feet-one hand syndrome is a relatively common condition where there is a superficial fungal infection involving the soles of both feet and the palm of one hand. It is very rare to see both palms affected. Typically, the infection is first noted on the feet and the involved palm usually belongs to the hand used to scratch or pick at the areas of involvement—a good reason to leave the infected skin alone. —Dr. MacCormack

What causes tinea pedis?

Athlete’s foot is caused by fungi that grow in damp environments, like a hot tub, swimming pool, or gym shower. It can spread from one person to another by touching an infected surface, like a shower floor or even a towel used by someone who was infected.

It is caused by a group of fungi called the dermatophytes. These are the same fungi that cause skin infections on other parts of the body like ringworm (tinea corporis) and jock itch (tinea cruris).

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What is the best treatment for tinea pedis?

Pro Tip

Always let your doctor know if you have changes in your finger or toenails or rashes in other areas of your body such as your palms or groin. These are other areas prone to fungal infections. And ask your doctor what you should do if the infection spreads or becomes painful. —Dr. MacCormack

Most of the time, athlete’s foot can be treated at home with over-the-counter antifungal medications that you apply to your skin. These include clotrimazole (Lotrimin), imidazoles, terbinafine (Lamisil), and tolnaftate powder (tinactin). Combined antifungal and corticosteroid products are not recommended as they do not offer increased benefit but can cause side effects such as thinning of the skin.

If your symptoms don’t start to improve in 1 to 2 weeks, talk to your doctor. In severe cases, such as when the athlete’s foot covers large areas of your foot, your doctor may prescribe an oral antifungal medication. Just be aware that these medications might cause side effects, including headache, upset stomach, rash, or liver injury.

People with a suppressed immune system are at increased risk for fungal infections that don’t go away easily, and should see a doctor as well. They may be at risk of developing a secondary bacterial infection that would require antibiotics.

If you have a red, hot swollen foot; swollen lymph nodes (lumps under the skin) in the foot, leg, or groin; have a fever; or have a deep wound on the foot, these are signs of severe athlete’s foot. See a doctor immediately or go to urgent care or the ER.

Risk factors for athlete’s foot

You’re more at risk of catching athlete’s foot if you:

  • Wear non-breathable socks and shoes
  • Are in a warm, humid environment
  • Sweat a lot (hyperhidrosis)
  • Walk barefoot around shared, wet spaces like pool sides, public showers, locker rooms
  • Share towels
  • Have a suppressed immune system
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Prevention

Athlete’s foot should start to get better within days to weeks of treatment depending on severity and treatment choices. It’s common to get reinfected and need to repeat treatment.

Some ways to avoid getting infected and reduce recurrences.

  • Wear shower shoes and sandals when walking around the pool, shared showers, locker rooms, and other damp environments.
  • At home, disinfect the shower floor after using.
  • Always dry feet before putting on socks and shoes. For extra help, sprinkle talc powder on your feet after showering and before exercising.
  • Wear sweat-wicking socks and avoid warm, tight shoes. You can also treat shoes and socks with antifungal powder.
  • Alternate pairs of shoes so they dry completely between wearings.
  • If athlete’s foot happens more than once, try an antiseptic powder like tolnaftate (tinactin powder) or clotrimazole (lotrimin powder) on your feet to protect them.
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