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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. Also called tinea pedis, athlete's foot is closely related to other fungal infections with similar names, which include:

  • Ringworm of the body (tinea corporis). This form causes a red, scaly ring or circle of rash on the top layer of your skin.
  • Jock itch (tinea cruris). This form affects your genitals, inner upper thighs and buttocks.
  • Ringworm of the scalp (tinea capitis). This form is most common in children and involves red, itchy patches on the scalp, leaving bald patches.

Alternative Names of Athlete’s Foot are: Tinea pedis.

Complications of Athlete’s Foot

Athlete's foot can lead to complications. These include:

  • Secondary infections. Athlete's foot, a fungal infection, can create an environment that invites a secondary bacterial infection. By producing an antibiotic substance, the fungus can kill off vulnerable bacteria and favor the overgrowth of hardier, resistant bacteria. In turn, the bacteria release substances that can cause tissue breakdown — soggy skin and painful eroded areas between the toes.
  • An allergic response. After an episode of athlete's foot, proteins might enter your bloodstream, leading to an allergic reaction that may cause an eruption of blisters on your fingers, toes or hands (dermatophytid or "id" reaction).

Causes of Athlete’s Foot

A group of mold-like fungi called dermatophytes causes athlete's foot. These organisms sprout tendril-like microscopic extensions that infect the superficial layer of the skin. In response to this fungal growth, the basal layer of the skin produces more skin cells than usual. As these cells push to the surface, the skin becomes thick and scaly. Most often, the more the fungi spread, the more scales your skin produces, causing the ring of advancing infection to form. The organisms that cause athlete's foot thrive in damp, close environments created by 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 in the following ways:

  • Human to human. Athlete's foot often spreads by direct, skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. Not everyone who carries the fungus develops signs and symptoms of athlete's foot.
  • Object to human. The fungus is carried on fragments of skin or other particles that contaminate floors, mats, rugs, bed linens, clothes, shoes and other surfaces. Although transmission can occur within a household, the infection is more commonly passed along in public areas — locker rooms, saunas, swimming pools, communal baths and showers.
  • Animal to human. Household pets can pass along fungal infections to humans.

Signs & Symptoms of Athlete’s Foot

The signs and symptoms of athlete's foot can be numerous, although you probably won't have all of them:

  • Itching, stinging and burning between your toes
  • Itching, stinging and burning on the soles of your feet
  • Itchy blisters
  • Cracking and peeling skin, especially between your toes and on the soles of your feet
  • Excessive dryness of the skin on the bottoms or sides of the feet
  • Toenails that are thick, crumbly, ragged, discolored or pulling away from the nail bed

Onychomycosis — a fungal infection of the nail — may develop with or without other signs and symptoms of athlete's foot.

Diagnosis of Athlete’s Foot

  • Your doctor will want to determine if your signs and symptoms are caused by athlete's foot or by another skin disorder, such as dermatitis or psoriasis. You'll probably be asked about exposure to contaminated areas or contact with people who have athlete's foot.
  • Your doctor may take skin scrapings or fluid samples from your foot to view under a microscope to identify a fungus. If the sample shows a fungus, an antifungal medication is the usual treatment. If the test is negative but your doctor still suspects that you have athlete's foot, a sample may be sent to a laboratory to determine whether it will grow fungus 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.

Treatments of Athlete’s Foot

If athlete's foot is severe or doesn't respond to over-the-counter medicine, you may need a prescription-strength topical medication (lotion, powder, spray or ointment) or an oral medication (pill, capsule or tablet). Many options are available, including:

  • Terbinafine (Lamisil)
  • Clotrimazole (Lotrimin)
  • Miconazole (Monistat-Derm)

If your fungal infection is severe or doesn't respond to topical medicine, your doctor may give you a prescription oral medication. Oral medications include:

  • Itraconazole (Sporanox)
  • Fluconazole (Diflucan)
  • Terbinafine (Lamisil)

Side effects from oral medications include gastrointestinal upset, rash and abnormal liver function. Taking other medications, such as antacid therapies for ulcer disease or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), may interfere with the absorption of these drugs. Oral medications for athlete's foot may alter the effectiveness of warfarin, an anticoagulant drug that decreases the clotting ability of your blood. 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.

Prevention of Athlete’s Foot

These tips can help you avoid athlete's foot or ease the symptoms if infection occurs:

  • Keep your feet dry, especially between your toes. Go barefoot to let your feet air out as much as possible when you're home.
  • Go with natural materials. Wear socks that are made of natural material, such as cotton or wool, or a synthetic fiber designed to draw moisture away from your feet.
  • Change socks and stockings regularly. If your feet sweat a lot, change your socks twice a day.
  • Wear light, well-ventilated shoes. Avoid shoes made of synthetic material, such as vinyl or rubber.
  • Alternate pairs of shoes. This allows time for your shoes to dry.
  • Protect your feet in public places. Wear waterproof sandals or shower shoes in communal showers, pools, fitness centers and other public areas.
  • Treat your feet. Use an antifungal powder daily.
  • Don't borrow shoes. Borrowing risks spreading a fungal infection.

When to seek Medical Advice

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 someone sooner if you notice excessive redness, swelling, drainage or fever. In addition, if you have diabetes and suspect you have athlete's foot, see your doctor.


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