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Athlete's foot - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Athlete's foot is a common condition caused by a fungal infection. An itchy red rash develops in the spaces between your toes.

As well as being itchy, the skin in the affected area may be scaly, flaky and dry. The medical name for athlete's foot is tinea pedis.

Read more about the symptoms of athlete's foot

Do I need to see my GP?

Athlete's foot is usually mild and can be easily treated using antifungal medication, which is available from your pharmacy.

You only need to see your GP if the infection doesn't go away, although pharmacists often prefer children to see a GP to confirm a diagnosis. The GP may prescribe stronger antifungal medication, often in tablet form.

With effective treatment, athlete's foot usually only lasts for a few days or weeks.

Antifungal medication kills the fungi that cause the infection. It is available in many forms including:

  • creams
  • sprays
  • liquids
  • powders
  • tablets

Read more about treating athlete's foot.

What causes athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot is caused by a fungal infection. Harmless bacteria and fungi live naturally on your skin. If these organisms multiply, your skin can become infected.

A group of fungi called dermatophytes is responsible for athlete's foot. These fungi feed off other organisms to survive. Your feet provide a warm, dark and humid environment. These are ideal conditions for dermatophytes to grow.

Athlete's foot spreads easily. It can be passed from person to person through contaminated towels, clothing or surfaces.

The fungi multiply in warm and humid places such as showers, swimming pools and changing rooms. 

Read about what causes athlete's foot.

Complications of athlete's foot

If it is not treated effectively, the infection can sometimes spread to other parts of your body, such as the toenails, causing a fungal nail infection, or the palms of your hands.

The fungi that cause athlete's foot usually only grow on the surface of your skin. However, if your skin is cracked, it can enter your body and spread to exposed tissue.

Read about the complications of athlete's foot.

Who is affected?

Anyone can develop athlete's foot, but it is more common in men and teenagers. Children under 12 years of age rarely develop the condition.

It is not known why some people develop athlete's foot more than others. However, people who play a lot of sport are often affected because the infection is easily spread in communal areas such as showers and changing rooms.

Sport and exercise can also make your feet warmer and more moist than usual, which provides an ideal environment for the fungi to grow. Tight-fitting trainers can also encourage the fungi to grow.

Medical Review: March 19, 2012
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