A common fungus infection between the toes in which the skin becomes itchy and sore, cracking and peeling away. Athlete's foot (also known as tinea pedis or foot ringworm) can be treated, but it can be tenacious and difficult to clear up completely.
Athlete's foot is a very common condition of itchy, peeling skin on the feet. In fact, it's so common that most people will have at least one episode at least once in their lives. It's less often found in women and children under age 12. (Symptoms that look like athlete's foot in young children most probably are caused by some other skin condition).
Because the fungi grow well in warm, damp areas, they flourish in and around swimming pools, showers, and locker rooms. Tinea pedis got its common name
because the infection was common among athletes who often used these areas.
Causes and symptoms
Athlete's foot is caused by a fungal infection that most often affects the fourth and fifth toe webs. Trichophyton rubrum, T. mentagrophytes, and Epidermophyton floccosum, the fungi that cause athlete's foot, are unusual in that they live exclusively on dead body tissue (hair, the outer layer of skin, and nails). The fungus grows best in moist, damp, dark places with poor ventilation. The problem doesn't occur among people who usually go barefoot.
Many people carry the fungus on their skin. However, it will only flourish to the point of causing athlete's foot if conditions are right. Many people believe athlete's foot is highly contagious, especially in public swimming pools and shower rooms. Research has shown, however, that it is difficult to pick up the infection simply by walking barefoot over a contaminated damp floor. Exactly why some people develop the condition and others don't is not well understood.
Sweaty feet, tight shoes, synthetic socks that don't absorb moisture well, a warm climate, and not drying the feet well after swimming or bathing, all contribute to the overgrowth of the fungus.
Symptoms of athlete's foot include itchy, sore skin on the toes, with scaling, cracking, inflammation, and blisters. Blisters that break, exposing raw patches of tissue, can cause pain and swelling. As the infection spreads, itching and burning may get worse.
If it's not treated, athlete's foot can spread to the soles of the feet and toenails. Stubborn toenail infections may appear at the same time, with crumbling, scaling and thickened nails, and nail loss. The infection can spread further if patients scratch and then touch themselves elsewhere
(especially in the groin or under the arms). It's also possible to spread the infection to other parts of the body via contaminated bed sheets or clothing.
Not all foot rashes are athlete's foot, which is why a physician should diagnose the condition before any remedies are used. Using nonprescription products on a rash that is not athlete's foot could make the rash worse.
A dermatologist can diagnose the condition by physical examination and by examining a preparation of skin scrapings under a microscope. This test, called a KOH preparation, treats a sample of tissue scraped from the infected area with heat and potassium hydroxide (KOH). This treatment dissolves certain substances in the tissue sample, making it possible to see the fungi under the microscope.
Athlete's foot may be resistant to medication and should not be ignored. Simple cases usually respond well to antifungal creams or sprays (clotrimazole, ketoconazole, miconazole nitrate, sulconazole nitrate, or tolnaftate). If the infection is resistant to topical treatment, the doctor may prescribe an oral antifungal drug.
Untreated athlete's foot may lead to a secondary bacterial infection in the skin cracks.
A footbath containing cinnamon has been shown to slow down the growth of certain molds and fungi, and is said to be very effective in clearing up athlete's foot. To make the bath:
- heat four cups of water to a boil
- add eight to 10 broken cinnamon sticks
- reduce heat and simmer five minutes
- remove and let the mixture steep for 45 minutes until lukewarm
- soak feet
Other herbal remedies used externally to treat athlete's foot include: a foot soak or powder containing goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis); tea tree oil (Melaleuca spp.); or calendula (Calendula officinalis) cream to help heal cracked skin.
Athlete's foot usually responds well to treatment, but it is important to take all medication as directed by a dermatologist, even if the skin appears to be free of fungus. Otherwise, the infection could return. The toenail infections that may accompany athlete's foot, however, are typically very hard to treat effectively
Good personal hygiene and a few simple precautions can help prevent athlete's foot. To prevent spread of athlete's foot:
- wash feet daily
- dry feet thoroughly (especially between toes)
- avoid tight shoes (especially in summer)
- wear sandals during warm weather
- wear cotton socks and change them often if they get damp
- don't wear socks made of synthetic material
- go barefoot outdoors when possible
- wear bathing shoes in public bathing or showering areas
- use a good quality foot powder
- don't wear sneakers without socks
- wash towels, contaminated floors, and shower stalls well with hot soapy water if anyone in the family has athlete's foot
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Orkin, Milton, Howard Maibach, and Mark Dahl. Dermatology. Norwalk, CT: Appleton & Lange, 1991.
Stoffman, Phyllis. The Family Guide to Preventing and Treating 100 Infectious Illnesses. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.
Thompson, June, et al. Mosby's Clinical Nursing. St. Louis: Mosby, 1998.
American Podiatric Medical Association. 9312 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, MD 20814-1698. (301) 571-9200. <http://www.apma.org>.
Carol A. Turkington