Toe cracks quiz
Take a quiz to find out what's causing your toe cracks.
Dry skin between the toes is usually caused by a fungal infection known as athlete's foot. Other causes for cracks between toes can arise from contact dermatitis or skin infections. Read on for more information about causes and treatment options.
4 most common causes
Cracks in or between the toes symptoms
Cracks in or between the toes can be an uncomfortable and annoying symptom. This condition can have several causes, but fortunately, many of them are common and easily treatable either at home or with the help of your healthcare provider.
Common characteristics of cracks in or between the toes are
Cracks in between the toes are common between the little toe and the adjacent toe as seen here. The affected area can also be described as:
- Very flaky and itchy
- The skin is becoming white and thick
- The skin may look swollen
Common accompanying symptoms are
Since there are many different causes of cracks between the toes, symptoms can vary and range in severity. In addition to the primary symptom, you may also experience:
- Pus-filled bumps
- Open sores
It is important to follow-up with your healthcare provider even though cracks in or between the toes are generally benign because they do not self-resolve. They must be treated or they can lead to complications such as infections of the nails or other parts of the foot.
Causes of cracks in or between the toes
Many of the causes of cracks in or between the toes need warmth and moisture to grow and spread to create further issues. The feet are the perfect environment as most people wear shoes for the majority of the day, providing the ideal dark and warm space.
Inflammatory causes of cracks in or between the toes include the following.
- Infection: Cracks between the toes are most often caused by fungi that infect the skin (dermatophytes). The fungi enter the skin through small cracks or wounds and infect the topmost layer. Although fungi are the most common cause, other infectious pathogens such as bacteria can also infect the feet in a similar fashion and result in similar symptoms.
- Systemic disease: Conditions that weaken the immune system, whether from serious illness or long-term medication use, can put the body at risk for contracting infections and other inflammatory diseases. An individual with a weakened immune system cannot mount an appropriate response to pathogens. If the feet or toes become infected, cracks or skin breakdown may persist.
Dermatologic causes of cracks in or between the toes include the following.
- Primary: Primary dermatologic causes refer to cutaneous conditions that are the result of inherent problems with the skin and its components. Many of these conditions can affect the feet and cause cracks and dryness in the skin.
- Secondary: Secondary dermatologic conditions that result in cracks in or between the toes can occur due to secondary causes such as weather and poor moisturizer that results in dryness.
Environmental causes of cracks in or between the toes include the following.
- Irritation: Many substances can irritate the skin and cause rashes, redness, and cracking of the skin. This is known as dermatitis. Products such as heavily scented soaps, lotions, and even some types of jewelry around the toes can be very irritating and cause damage to the toes due to allergic or sensitivity reactions.
- Poor hygiene: Proper hygiene is essential in maintaining foot health. Regularly washing the feet with mild soap and water and adequately drying the feet after showering or exposure to water is important in keeping fungi and bacteria away.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis means a skin reaction that is caused by directly touching an irritating substance, and not by an infectious agent such as a bacteria or virus.
Common causes are soap, bleach, cleaning agents, chemicals, and even water. Almost any substance can cause it with prolonged exposure. Contact dermatitis is not contagious.
Anyone who works with an irritating substance can contract the condition. Mechanics, beauticians, housekeepers, restaurant workers, and health care providers are all susceptible.
Symptoms include skin that feels swollen, stiff, and dry, and becomes cracked and blistered with painful open sores.
A medical provider can give the best advice on how to heal the skin and avoid further irritation. Self-treatment can make the problem worse if the wrong creams or ointments are used.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, to find out what substances the patient comes into contact with, and through physical examination of the damaged skin.
Treatment involves avoiding the irritating substance if possible. Otherwise, the person can use petroleum jelly on the hands underneath cotton and then rubber gloves.
Top Symptoms: rash with well-defined border, itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, painful rash, red rash
Symptoms that always occur with irritant contact dermatitis: rash with well-defined border
Symptoms that never occur with irritant contact dermatitis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes
Non-specific foot rash
A rash is an area of irritated or swollen skin. Often, rashes are unidentifiable and some variation of normal. For example, scratching one's arm causes it to turn red (which is caused by mast cells releasing chemicals into the local area), but that's completely normal.
At this time, you do not need treatment for this rash. If it worsens, you may need to consult a physician.
Eczema (atopic dermatitis)
Atopic dermatitis, also called eczema, dermatitis, atopic eczema, or AD, is a chronic skin condition with an itchy rash.
AD is not contagious. It is caused by a genetic condition that affects the skin's ability to protect itself from bacteria and allergens.
AD is most often seen in infants and young children. Most susceptible are those with a family history of AD, asthma, or hay fever.
Infants will have a dry, scaly, itchy rash on the scalp, forehead, and cheeks. Older children will have the rash in the creases of elbows, knees, and buttocks.
Without treatment, a child may have trouble sleeping due to the intense itching. Constant scratching may cause skin infections and the skin may turn thickened and leathery.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination, patient history, and allergen skin tests.
AD cannot be cured, but can be controlled through prescribed medications, skin care, stress management, and treatment of food allergies. Those with AD often have allergies to milk, nuts, and shellfish. Keeping the skin clean and moisturized helps prevent flareups.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.
The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.
Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.
Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.
If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.
Symptoms of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination.
Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.
Athlete's foot (tinea pedis)
Athlete's foot is a common fungal infection of the feet and/or toes. Warm, moist environments and community showering are common causes of this type of infection.
Over-the-counter treatments are quite effective at treating athlete's foot. They can come in the form of sprays, ointments, or even oral antifungals. Consider replacing shower footwear and bleaching any bathroom floors.
Top Symptoms: foot redness, foot/toe itch, foot skin changes, spontaneous foot pain, peeling between the toes
Symptoms that always occur with athlete's foot (tinea pedis): foot redness
Symptoms that never occur with athlete's foot (tinea pedis): toe injury
Allergic contact dermatitis of the foot
Allergic contact dermatitis means the skin has touched something that provoked an allergic reaction, causing inflammation and irritation.
"Contact" means the allergic reaction came from touching something, not from consuming something. The first exposure to the substance sensitizes the immune system, and then the second exposure actually causes the symptoms.
The most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis are:
- Nickel, a metal often used in belt buckles, the buttons on pants, and jewelry, including piercing jewelry.
- Poison ivy.
- Various types of perfumes, including those founds in soaps, fabric softeners, and detergents.
- Of course, there are many more.
Symptoms include red, itching, scaling, flaking skin that may be painful due to the irritation and inflammation.
Diagnosis is made through first avoiding contact with any suspected substance, to see if the dermatitis clears. Patch testing can be done if the results are not certain.
Treatment involves fully avoiding the allergy-provoking substance and using topical steroid cream as prescribed. Cool compresses and calamine lotion can help to ease the discomfort.
Top Symptoms: foot redness, foot/toe itch, scabbed area of the foot
Symptoms that always occur with allergic contact dermatitis of the foot: foot redness
Cracks in or between the toes treatments and relief
The mainstay of treatment in regards to cracks between the toes is prevention. There are many things you can do at home or in your day-to-day routine that can stop this condition from occurring in the first place.
Since many of the causes of cracks in or between the toes can persist or thrive in a moist environment, keeping your feet dry is key. Try these lifestyle changes in order to prevent the occurrence or recurrence of your symptoms:
- Keep your feet dry: Thoroughly dry your feet with a towel after activities such as showering or swimming.
- Footwear: Wear shoes that fit and are not too tight. This will allow your feet to breathe. Try not to wear the same pairs of shoes over consecutive days and take your shoes off as much as possible. You should also wear flip-flops in communal showers and changing rooms.
- Limit the spread of germs: Do not share towels, shoes, or socks.
There are many creams, gels, and sprays that are available over-the-counter that do not require a prescription. Always speak with your physician first before trying any non-prescription treatments.
When to see a doctor
If you develop symptoms, see your healthcare provider for an appropriate diagnosis and advice on how to treat your condition. For example, if your symptoms are due to a fungal infection, your healthcare provider may give you over-the-counter options to utilize. However, if your symptoms are dermatologic or systemic in nature, your healthcare provider may have to prescribe topical or systemic steroids to treat your condition.
When it is an emergency
Cracks in or between the toes are rarely an emergency. However, if you have a weakened immune system or peripheral nerve problem from a condition such as diabetes, you need to pay particularly close attention to your feet. In such conditions, cracks in the feet may go unnoticed for long periods of time and become super infected.
FAQs about cracks in or between the toes
What is athlete’s foot?
Athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis, is a fungal infection of the feet/toes. The fungi (dermatophytes) enter the skin through small cracks or wounds and infect the topmost layer of the toes.
How do I contract athlete’s foot?
The fungi that cause athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) are passed through direct skin contact or through contact with already infected flakes of skin. This is why it is important to not share shoes or socks with other individuals and to protect the feet from contact with fungi in communal areas like locker rooms by wearing flip-flops.
What is contact dermatitis?
Dermatitis is inflammation of the skin resulting in redness, itching, and/or flaking. Contact dermatitis refers to dermatitis that is caused by skin contact with a substance. The substance can provoke an allergic reaction or an irritate and damage the skin.
What over-the-counter medications treat athlete’s foot?
Medications such as antifungal creams, gels, or sprays can treat tinea pedis and can easily be found in your local pharmacy. Use the medications two times a day for two weeks or as directed on the packaging. If your symptoms do not improve, make an appointment with your physician.
Will my athlete’s foot go away on its own?
No. Without treatment, athlete’s foot will only worsen. Your symptoms of itchiness, flaking and general discomfort will only resolve with over-the-counter or prescription medications that target the fungus.
Questions your doctor may ask about cracks in or between the toes
- Do you have a rash?
- Did you suffer a sudden, physical injury to your toe(s)?
- Did your symptoms start after you were exposed to glues, fragrances, preservatives, hair dyes, soaps, detergents, or other common household chemicals?
- How would you explain the cause of your foot pain?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Was this article helpful?
- Informed Health Online [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Athlete's foot: Overview. 2015 Jan 14 [Updated 2018 Jun 14]. NCBI Link
- Contact Dermatitis and Latex Allergy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated July 10, 2013. CDC Link
- Stone SP. Ask a dermatologist: How do I get rid of athlete’s foot? American Academy of Dermatology. AAD Link