What Is Athlete's Foot? Experts on Causes and More

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Stocksy / Design by Cristina Cianci

Athlete’s foot may not be the most joyful topic, but as you know, when it comes to wellness, sometimes we need to talk about uncomfortable things. Being that athlete's foot is actually uncomfortable, let's dive in. It is a common fungal infection on the feet, affecting somewhere between three to 15 percent of the population. If you've ever had athlete's foot, you know it's something you want to address right away and hopefully move on from.

Athlete's foot can cause flaky, itchy skin, burning sensations, blisters, and a general feeling of discomfort. Unfortunately, it's also pretty contagious and can spread from person to person, or even to another part of your body. Yikes, right? Even though athlete's foot is definitely not a fun condition to endure, the good news is, it's treatable. In some cases, it's preventable, too.

We tapped board-certified dermatologists Dina Strachan, MD, Susan Massick, MD, and Kari Martin, MD to break down everything you need to know about the condition, including its causes, symptoms, and when it might be a good idea to get in touch with your doctor.

Meet the Expert

  • Dina Strachan, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City
  • Susan Massick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
  • Kari Martin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at University of Missouri Health Care

What Is Athlete's Foot?

Athlete's foot, or tinea pedis, is a fungal infection that affects the skin of the feet. People usually experience athlete's foot symptoms between their toes, but it can also exist across other parts of the feet, including the soles and the upper surface. Its symptoms include itchy and flaky skin, blisters, cracked skin, reddish or purplish skin (depending on skin color), burning sensations, and inflammation.

There are many different types of fungal skin infections similar to athlete's foot, and they're often named corresponding to the place on the body where they're found. So “tinea pedis,” or athlete's foot, is confined to the skin of the feet. Other types of fungal infections include:

  • Tinea capitis: A fungal infection of the scalp (often referred to as ringworm)
  • Tinea manuum: A fungal infection of the hands
  • Tinea cruris: A fungal infection of the groin area (often referred to as jock itch)
  • Tinea corporis: A fungal infection that can affect anywhere else on the body

What Causes Athlete's Foot?

Athlete's foot is a dermatophyte infection of the skin. Dermatophytes are fungi that require keratin to grow. This type of fungal infection can be contagious, meaning you can catch it from other people. It's possible to acquire athlete's foot either through direct contact with someone who has an active infection, or through direct contact with a contaminated surface (such as the floor of a public pool), Massick says. Risk factors for athlete's foot include:

  • Sweaty feet
  • Wearing shoes for a long period of time when your feet are sweaty or moist
  • Walking barefoot through a locker room or other public space where others may also be walking without shoes on

"There are a few different types of fungus that can cause [athlete's foot] and they are quite common," Martin says. "They are transferred from surfaces such as the floors in locker rooms, gyms, bathrooms, and swimming pools."

How Can You Treat Athlete's Foot?

Athlete's foot can be treated with medication and by keeping your feet in a dry environment. Here's what you need to know about some different athlete's foot treatments:

  • Topical antifungal medications: These are available as a powder or cream and can be obtained without a prescription. Examples include terbinafine, clotrimazole, miconazole, and tolnaftate.
  • Oral antifungal medication: "Occasionally with severe infections, an oral antifungal may be needed," Massick says. These are usually taken as a tablet or capsule.
  • Eliminate moisture: Keep your feet clean and dry by changing your socks throughout the day if they happen to get sweaty, and wearing breathable shoes.
  • Protect your feet: Wear shoes or socks to protect your feet from contaminated surfaces and prevent any additional exposures to the fungus that causes athlete's foot.
  • Treat other conditions that might be contributing to athlete's foot: People who experience excessive foot sweating (this condition is called hyperhidrosis) may experience improvements with athlete's foot after treating and addressing the issue with excessive sweating, Strachan says. Curious why this works? Athlete's foot thrives in sweaty environments, so by reducing sweating, you may be able to keep any problems with athlete's foot away.

Is it Possible to Prevent Athlete's Foot?

In many ways, preventing athlete's foot is similar to treating the condition. Martin suggests keeping your feet clean and dry, minimizing exposure to locker room and public bathroom floors (wear shoes or sandals!), and using an antifungal powder or cream regularly if you're prone to getting athlete's foot.

Other helpful tips include wearing breathable shoes, changing out of sweaty shoes or socks as soon as possible, wearing moisture-wicking socks, alternating between pairs of shoes to give them a chance to dry out before wearing, and drying the area between your toes after showering. You may need to be on alert in your own house too, especially if someone you live with has athlete's foot.

"If you share a bathroom space, avoid bathroom mats, and be sure to clean shower stalls and bathtubs on a regular basis," Massick says.

When to See a Doctor

If your athlete's foot lasts longer than a month or is not responding to over-the-counter medications, it's a good idea to see a doctor for an evaluation. A healthcare professional will be able to assess your condition and may prescribe an oral anti-fungal medication.

The Takeaway

Athlete's foot is an uncomfortable fungal infection that many of us will experience at one point or another. Many people get athlete's foot after walking barefoot on a public surface like a locker room floor or at a public pool, or from having sweaty feet. If you experience symptoms of athlete's foot, try using a topical antifungal medication and do your best to keep your feet dry. If the condition is persistent, definitely seek out the help of a medical professional.

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