Athlete’s foot — also called tinea pedis — is a contagious fungal infection that affects the skin on the feet. It can also spread to the toenails and the hands. The fungal infection is called athlete’s foot because it’s commonly seen in athletes.
Athlete’s foot occurs when the tinea fungus grows on the feet. You can catch the fungus through direct contact with an infected person, or by touching surfaces contaminated with the fungus. The fungus thrives in warm, moist environments. It’s commonly found in showers, on locker room floors, and around swimming pools.
Anyone can get athlete’s foot, but certain behaviors increase your risk. Factors that increase your risk of getting athlete’s foot include:
- visiting public places barefoot, especially locker rooms, showers, and swimming pools
- sharing socks, shoes, or towels with an infected person
- wearing tight, closed-toe shoes
- keeping your feet wet for long periods of time
- having sweaty feet
- having a minor skin or nail injury on your foot
There are many possible symptoms of athlete’s foot, which include:
- itching, stinging, and burning between your toes or on soles of your feet
- blisters on your feet that itch
- cracking and peeling skin on your feet, most commonly between your toes and on your soles
- dry skin on your soles or sides of your feet
- raw skin on your feet
- discolored, thick, and crumbly toenails
- toenails that pull away from the nail bed
A doctor may diagnose athlete’s foot by the symptoms. Or, a doctor may order a skin test if they aren’t sure a fungal infection is causing your symptoms.
A skin lesion potassium hydroxide exam is the most common test for athlete’s foot. A doctor scrapes off a small area of infected skin and places it in potassium hydroxide. The KOH destroys normal cells and leaves the fungal cells untouched so they are easy to see under a microscope.
Athlete’s foot can often be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) topical antifungal medications. If OTC medications don’t treat your infection, your doctor may prescribe topical or oral prescription-strength antifungal medications. Your doctor may also recommend home treatments to help clear up the infection.
There are many OTC topical antifungal medications, including:
- miconazole (Desenex)
- terbinafine (Lamisil AT)
- clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF)
- butenafine (Lotrimin Ultra)
- tolnaftate (Tinactin)
Some of the prescription medications your doctor may prescribe for athlete’s foot include:
- topical, prescription-strength clotrimazole or miconazole
- oral antifungal medications such as itraconazole (Sporanox), fluconazole (Diflucan), or prescription-strength terbinafine (Lamisil)
- topical steroid medications to reduce painful inflammation
- oral antibiotics if bacterial infections develop due to raw skin and blisters
Your doctor may recommend that you soak your feet in salt water or diluted vinegar to help dry up blisters.
Tea tree oil has been used as an alternative therapy for treating athlete’s foot with some success. A study from 2002 reported that a 50 percent solution of tea tree oil effectively treated athlete’s foot in 64 percent of trial participants.
Ask your doctor if a tea tree oil solution can help your athlete’s foot. Tea tree oil can cause contact dermatitis in some people.
Athlete’s foot can lead to complications in some cases. Mild complications include an allergic reaction to the fungus, which can lead to blistering on the feet or hands. It’s also possible for the fungal infection to return after treatment.
There can be more severe complications if a secondary bacterial infection develops. In this case, your foot might be swollen, painful, and hot. Pus, drainage, and fever are additional signs of a bacterial infection.
Athlete’s foot infections can be mild or severe. Some clear up quickly, and others last a long time. Athlete’s foot infections generally respond well to antifungal treatment. However, sometimes fungal infections are difficult to eliminate. Long-term treatment with antifungal medications may be necessary to keep athlete’s foot infections from returning.
There are several things you can do to help prevent athlete’s foot infections:
- Wash your feet with soap and water every day and dry them thoroughly, especially between the toes.
- Wash socks, bedding and towels in water that’s 140°F (60°C) or higher. Combining washing socks and application of OTC antifungal recommendations should treat most cases of athlete’s foot. You can disinfect your shoes by using disinfectant wipes (like Clorox wipes) or sprays.
- Put antifungal powder on your feet every day.
- Don’t share socks, shoes, or towels with others.
- Wear sandals in public showers, around public swimming pools, and in other public places.
- Wear socks made out of breathable fibers, such as cotton or wool, or made out of synthetic fibers that wick moisture away from your skin.
- Change your socks when your feet get sweaty.
- Air out your feet when you are at home by going barefoot.
- Wear shoes made of breathable materials.
- Alternate between two pairs of shoes, wearing each pair every other day, to give your shoes time to dry out between uses. Moisture will allow the fungus to continue to grow.