What is athlete's foot?
Athlete's foot is a fungal skin infection that is also known as tinea pedis and is not particular to athletes. The fungus that causes this condition - Trichophyton - lives in areas that are moist and warm, so the skin between the toes is a particularly susceptible area. If not treated, it can cause a rash and itching in other parts of the body as well, especially the groin where the infection is known as tinea cruris. Athlete's foot is often recurring, as the fungus can survive under the toenails and reappear when conditions are favourable.
What causes athlete's foot?
The fungus that causes athlete's foot can be found on floors and in socks and clothing. Wearing poorly ventilated shoes and sweaty socks causes feet to become a breeding ground for the infection. Although the condition is just an uncomfortable nuisance for most people, it can causes open sores which can occasionally become more seriously infected.
What are the symptoms of athlete's foot?
The main symptom is itching, stinging and burning of the feet. There is also usually cracking, scaling and peeling of the skin, particularly between the toes and sometimes spreading to the soles of the feet. In severe cases bleeding may occur. Blisters may also occur. In advanced stages, there may also be white, soggy skin between the toes, an unpleasant smell, oozing from blisters and thickening, crumbling and discolouration of the toenails if they also become infected by the fungus.
Because the athlete's foot fungus injures the skin, bacteria are also able to attack the skin. This type of bacterial infection causes an inflammation called cellulitis and occurs more often in the elderly, diabetic people, people with chronic leg swelling or those who have had veins removed from their legs (such as for bypass surgery), and people with weakened immune systems.
Is athlete's foot serious?
No, not usually. Most people treat their itchy toes before it spreads. Sometimes the infection spreads to the skin on other parts of the body. These are usually the moist and airless parts of the skin such as the groin. Fungi do not usually go deeper than the skin into the body. However, other bacteria may enter through the cracked skin of untreated athlete's foot. This can occasionally cause more serious infections of the foot or leg.
The infection can also sometimes spread to a nail. Although this can be treated, it takes several weeks of antifungal tablets to clear the infection from a nail so it is best to treat athlete's foot as soon as symptoms start.
What is the best treatment for athlete's foot?
There are a number of simple tips that can easily get rid of athlete’s foot;
Wash your feet daily, and dry the skin between your toes thoroughly after washing. This is perhaps the most important point. It is tempting to put socks on when your feet are not quite dry. Don’t do this - the soggy skin between the toes is then ideal for fungi to grow.
Do not share towels in communal changing rooms and wash your towels frequently.
Change your socks daily. Fungi may multiply in flakes of skin in unwashed socks. Cotton socks and leather footwear are probably better than nylon socks and plastic footwear, which increase sweating.
Ideally, try wearing different pairs of shoes every 2-3 days to allow each pair to dry out fully after being worn.
Wear flip-flops or plastic sandals in communal changing rooms and showers. This prevents the soles of your feet coming into contact with the ground, which may contain flakes of infected skin from other people.
If possible, when at home, leave your shoes and socks off as much as possible to let the air get to your feet.
Antifungal creams, gels, sprays or powders may also be used. It is important to continue applying these medicines for the recommended length of time to make sure the fungus is gone. For some of these medicines, this may be up to 1to 2 weeks after symptoms have disappeared.
When should I consult my doctor?
Early treatment ensures a correct diagnosis can be made and any complications prevented. A specific diagnosis may be made by microscopic examination or culture of skin scrapings for the fungus. If there is any redness, increased swelling or bleeding, if the infection does not seem to be clearing up, or if you have diabetes and suspect you have athlete's foot, see your doctor. If there is an additional bacterial infection, you may need a course of antibiotics.