Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis): Pictures, symptoms and treatment
Athlete's foot is caused by a fungus that grows on or in the top layer of skin. Fungi (plural of fungus) grow best in warm, moist places such as the area between the toes.
Most of the time a doctor can tell that you have athlete's foot simply by looking at your feet. He or she will also ask about your symptoms and any past fungal infections you may have had. If your athlete's foot looks unusual, or if treatment did not help you before, your doctor may take a skin or nail sample to test for fungi.
What causes athlete's foot?
The various kinds of fungi that cause athlete's foot belong to a group called dermatophytes, which also cause ‘jock itch’. The fungi thrive in moist, warm environments and feed on keratin, a protein found in hair, nails and skin.
Athlete's foot is mildly contagious. It can be spread through direct contact with the infection and by skin particles left on towels, shoes, floors of shower cubicles and changing rooms, and around swimming pools.
Walking barefoot in the shower at the gym or around the pool may increase your chance of contracting athlete's foot. The risk of developing athlete's foot can also depend on your susceptibility. For example, people who have diabetes are at greater risk.
What are the symptoms of athlete's foot?
Athlete's foot can make your feet and the skin between your toes burn and itch. The skin may peel and crack. The symptoms depend on how severe the infection is.
If untreated, it can develop into cracked, blistered skin that may become secondarily infected with bacteria. Initially, it often affects the skin between the toes but can spread to the toenails, soles and sides of the feet.
Typical symptoms also include:
- Dry flaking skin on the soles of the feet.
- Unpleasant foot odour.
- Small itchy bubbles or blisters on the soles of the feet.
You should treat athlete's foot at the first sign of itchiness or redness between your toes - or getting rid of it may be more difficult.
What are the treatments for athlete's foot?
Treat athlete's foot right away, when itchiness first appears.
Most cases of athlete's foot can be cured with over-the-counter antifungal products and basic good hygiene.
Antifungal creams, powders and sprays are all effective at managing the infection. You may need to continue treatment for some time after the rash has cleared to prevent it from recurring. Ensure that you follow the treatment instructions.
Most of the time it responds well to these over-the-counter interventions. However, more severe or resistant cases will need to be seen by your doctor.
As long as the area is not blistered or cracked, remove flakes of dead skin with a soft brush before using a topical powder or ointment. Do not tear off flaking skin; you may break nearby healthy skin and spread the infection.
If not treated properly and promptly, the infection can be very stubborn. Even when treated with antifungal medications, the infection may take some weeks to disappear and may come back after treatment.