Psoriasis vs. athlete’s foot

Psoriasis and athlete’s foot are two very different conditions. Psoriasis is a genetic autoimmune disease. It causes faster-than-normal growth of skin cells. This growth causes skin cells to build up on the surface of your skin rather than falling off naturally. These extra skin cells develop into scales, or thick, white-silver patches that are often dry, itchy, and painful.

Athlete’s foot is caused by a fungus. It develops when fungal cells that are normally present on the skin begin to multiply and grow too quickly. Athlete’s foot commonly develops in body areas that are prone to moisture, such as between the toes.

Symptoms of psoriasis and athlete’s foot

Psoriasis and athlete’s foot have some symptoms in common, but they also have some important differences.

Symptoms of psoriasisSymptoms of athlete’s foot
red patches of skin often covered by whitish-silvery scalesa red, scaly rash with peeling skin
itching and burningitching and burning on and around the rash
pain on or around the scalessmall blisters or ulcers
dry, cracked skin that may start to bleedchronic dryness
sorenessscaling on the heel that extends up the sides
swollen, painful joints
pitted or thickened nails
 

Because psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, it isn’t contagious. Psoriasis patches can be small and cover just a few dots of skin, or they can be large and cover large areas of your body. Most people with psoriasis experience flares. That means the disease is active for several days or weeks, and then it disappears or becomes less active.

Because athlete’s foot is caused by a fungus, it’s contagious. You can catch athlete’s foot by coming into contact with infected surfaces, such as clothing, shoes, and gym floors. You can spread athlete’s foot to your hands by scratching or picking at infected areas. Athlete’s foot can affect one foot or both.

Tips for identifying and distinguishing

These points may help you distinguish between psoriasis and athlete’s foot.

Affected body areas

Is your foot the only part of your body affected? If so, you likely have athlete’s foot. If you notice the patches are developing on your elbow, knee, back, or other areas, it’s more likely to be psoriasis.

The fungus that causes athlete’s foot can spread to different parts of your body, so this isn’t a foolproof method for distinguishing between the two.

Response to antifungal treatment

You can buy over-the-counter antifungal creams and ointments (Lotrimin, Lamisil, and others) at your pharmacy without a prescription. Apply this medication to the affected areas. If the rashes begin to disappear, you likely have a fungal infection, or athlete’s foot. If the rashes don’t disappear, you may be dealing with psoriasis or something else.

Response to no treatment

Psoriasis goes in cycles of activity. It may be active and cause symptoms for a few days or weeks, and then the symptoms may disappear. Athlete’s foot will rarely go away without treatment.

Diagnosis upon testing

The only way to be certain if your symptoms are caused by athlete’s foot or psoriasis, or something else entirely, is to have a skin test. During this test, your doctor will scrape or swab your infected skin. The sample of skin cells will be sent to the lab for testing.

Treatment for psoriasis and athlete’s foot

Treatments for psoriasis and athlete’s foot are different.

Psoriasis treatment

Psoriasis treatments fall into three general categories:

  • topical treatments
  • light therapy
  • systemic medications

Topical treatments include medicated creams and ointments. For mild cases of psoriasis, a topical treatment may be able to clear up the affected area.

Small amounts of controlled light, known as light therapy, may slow the growth of skin cells and reduce the rapid scaling and inflammation caused by psoriasis.

Systemic medications, which are often oral or injected, work inside your body to reduce and slow the production of skin cells. Systemic medications are typically reserved for severe cases of psoriasis.

Athlete’s foot treatment

Athlete’s foot, like most fungal infections, can be treated with over-the-counter or prescription antifungal creams. Unfortunately, if it’s not properly treated, it may return. You can also still contract athlete’s foot again at any point. In the severest cases, an oral antifungal medication may be needed.

What are the risk factors for psoriasis and athlete’s foot?

Risk factors for psoriasis include:

People at higher risk for athlete’s foot include those who:

  • are male
  • often wear tight-fitting shoes with damp socks
  • don’t wash and dry their feet properly
  • wear the same shoes frequently
  • walk barefoot in public places, such as gyms, showers, locker rooms, and saunas
  • live in close quarters with a person who has an athlete’s foot infection
  • have a weakened immune system

When to see your doctor

If you try over-the-counter treatments for your skin problem and they’re not effective, it’s time to call your doctor. A quick inspection of the infected area and a simple lab test should help your doctor give you the diagnosis and treatment you need. If your primary care doctor is unable to diagnose your condition, they may send you to a dermatologist (skin doctor) or podiatrist (foot doctor).

If your diagnosis ends up being athlete’s foot, your treatment will likely be fast and easy. However, if you have psoriasis, your treatment will be more involved. Because psoriasis doesn’t have a cure, you’ll need to have long-term care, but effective treatments are available. Work with your doctor to create a treatment plan that will manage symptoms and reduce flares as much as possible.

Q:

How do I prevent my athlete’s foot from spreading to other members of my household?

A:

To prevent spread, make sure feet are always clean and dry. When walking around the house, be sure to wear socks or shoes. Do not share a bath with anyone to avoid cross infecting. Do no share towels or bathmats. Keep the shower or bath area as dry as possible.

Mark Laflamme, MD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.