Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that affects the skin on your feet. It thrives in warm, damp environments and can be acquired through direct contact with a person who has the infection, or by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces.

This article will look at how contagious athlete’s foot is, as well as the steps you can take to prevent getting it.

Athlete’s foot, also called tinea pedis, is an infection triggered by a fungus known as trichophyton. When your skin comes into contact with the fungus, it can start to grow and spread.

It’s called athlete’s foot because athletes who are in and out of locker rooms and showers are at a particularly high risk of developing this infection.

Athlete’s foot can cause redness and itchiness on the surface of the skin. It can break the skin and form painful sores, too.

Symptoms of athlete’s foot include:

  • a scaly, red rash that usually develops between the toes before spreading
  • itchiness, which is often most severe after taking off your shoes and socks
  • blisters in severe cases

The athlete’s foot fungus thrives in moist, warm areas. A wet floor surface, like a shower, locker room, pool area, bathroom, or similar environment can be a breeding ground for the fungus.

If your bare feet come into contact with a surface like a contaminated bathroom floor, the fungus can easily get transferred to your skin. Skin that is warm and damp provides an excellent place for the fungus to grow, too.

You can also pick up athlete’s foot by borrowing towels, shoes, socks, or clothing used by someone who has the fungal infection.

The fungus is invisible, so there’s no way to know if it’s present on a shower floor or on a pair of socks. It’s usually best to assume that any damp public floor, or a surface such as a locker room bench, probably contains the fungus that causes athlete’s foot.

You can also transmit the infection to another part of your body. For instance, if you touch the affected part of your foot with your hands and then touch other parts of your body, you may transfer the fungus, especially if the area is warm or moist.

The most important step you can take to help prevent athlete’s foot is to avoid skin contact with surfaces that may harbor the fungus. That means wearing flip-flops or shower shoes in a public locker room or shower, college dormitory bathroom, and similar locations.

There are several other important preventive steps that may help lower the risk of getting athlete’s foot. To avoid contamination, try to:

  • Keep your feet dry by thoroughly drying your feet after bathing — especially in between your toes — and wearing clean, dry socks every day.
  • Avoid sharing towels, shoes, and socks with others.
  • Wear cotton socks or socks made from materials that help wick away moisture.
  • Change your socks daily, or more often if your feet get sweaty.
  • Wear shoes that allow your feet to breathe. Avoid rubber or plastic footwear unless they have ventilation openings.
  • Air out your shoes whenever you can, and try not to wear the same pair of shoes every day.
  • Use talcum powder to keep your toes and feet dry, or use an over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal powder on your feet once a week.
  • Clean shower floors and other surfaces that may harbor the fungus.

Most cases of athlete’s foot can be treated with OTC powders, creams, or sprays. There are many options available, including:

  • miconazole (Desenex)
  • tolnaftate (Tinactin)
  • clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF)
  • butenafine (Lotrimin Ultra)
  • terbinafine (Lamisil AT)

Be sure to follow the instructions on the product’s label and avoid touching the affected part of your foot as much as possible. Also, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with warm water after applying any medication to your feet.

Wash socks, towels, sheets and other items that come into contact with your feet in hot water to help get rid of the fungus and to stop it from spreading.

Along with using an OTC antifungal cream, powder, or spray, you may also be able to alleviate the symptoms of athlete’s foot with the following home remedies.

  • A vinegar foot soak has antifungal properties that may help fight an athlete’s foot infection without much risk of side effects.
  • Using hydrogen peroxide on the affected area of your foot may help kill the fungus and prevent it from spreading.
  • A 2002 study found that applying a solution made of water and 25 percent tea tree oil improved the symptoms of athlete’s foot.
  • According to a 2011 study, neem oil and neem leaf extracts have antifungal properties that can help tackle the symptoms of athlete’s foot. The oil or extract can be massaged into the affected skin two to three times a day.

Most of the time, you don’t need to see a doctor for athlete’s foot, as OTC antifungal medications can clear up the infection.

If a treatment is working, the symptoms of athlete’s foot usually last around 2 weeks.

However, if OTC treatments don’t start to improve your symptoms within a few days or you notice the infection worsening, see a doctor.

You may need prescription-strength topical or oral antifungal medications to tackle the infection. You may also need antibiotics if a bacterial infection has developed in a blister.

If you spend a lot of time around a pool or in public locker rooms, you have a higher risk of developing athlete’s foot, which thrives in these environments and is very contagious.

While not serious, the itching and irritation caused by the fungus can be unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Take preventive measures whenever you can. Wear flip-flops instead of going barefoot in public areas; keep your feet clean, dry, and well-ventilated; and avoid sharing towels, socks, and shoes with others.