Athlete’s Foot – Causes, Symptoms And Remedies

Athletes Foot

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Athlete’s Foot – An Overview

Though it is dubbed “Athlete’s Foot” there’s no reason why non-athletes should not contract this annoying fungal infection. Athlete’s Foot is caused by a fungus which attacks the soles and webbed areas between the toes of the feet.


By itself, the condition is not very dangerous or life-threatening. However, it causes discomfort, itching, burning, scaling and in later stages, pain and inability to move around comfortably.

A Brief Introduction To Athlete’s Foot:

Athlete’s foot is also known as ringworm foot, moccasin foot, jungle rot, tinea pedis, etc. It is commonly found in community spaces which are damp, poorly-lit or not well exposed to sunlight, warm and moist environments, the insides of shoes, swimming-pools, shower-rooms, locker-rooms, etc.

It may start off as a foot condition but can spread rapidly to the palms, toe nails, groin, armpits, folds of skin, etc. if left untreated. Athlete’s Foot is also highly contagious. Mild cases have been known to cure themselves spontaneously without medical intervention, but most cases do require some kind of anti-fungal treatment and a change in lifestyle.

Self-care and hygiene, over the counter medication and ensuring that the causes are identified can go a long way in managing and curing athlete’s foot. Studies have shown that most people who contract athlete’s foot are young people, adolescents and men.

Causes Of Athlete’s Foot:

First identified in the 19th century, the fungus that causes Athlete’s Foot was labeled Trichophyton rubrum. Other fungi such as T. mentagrophytes, epidermophyton floccosum etc. are also responsible for different variants of Athlete’s Foot.

In the general population, Trichophyton rubrum typically causes athlete’s foot, while in professional sports persons it is T. mentagrophytes which is the culprit.

Studies have shown that less than 1% of the population who is barefoot contract athlete’s foot. This squarely implicates shoes as the primary carrier and cause of the infection. The closed, damp, sweaty environment is ideal for the fungus to reproduce and spread.

These fungi are the main cause of athlete’s foot infection in human hair, nails and skin. The fungi are parasites who feed on other organisms, in this case, specifically the surface areas of human beings. They can and do exist on dry, clean skin without causing any infection, but begin to multiply and spread in damp and favorable conditions.

The fungi all have one thing in common – they thrive in damp, dark and moist conditions. They are commonly found on wet floors, in damp towels and in unhygienic clothing. Communal baths, shower-rooms, pool-sides, etc. where the floor is perpetually damp are great breeding grounds for athlete’s foot.

Some of the common ways in which athlete’s foot develops and spreads are by wearing thick, tight shoes which keep the toes squeezed tightly against each other. Plastic shoes are a huge factor, since this material does not allow the passage of air to the feet unlike leather or canvas. This causes the feet to sweat and when the shoes are kept on for a long time, the fungus begins to multiply between the toes. Damp and unwashed socks are another cause.

Athlete’s Foot spreads through both direct and indirect contact. Since the fungus causes severe itching, patients tend to scratch and spread the infection to other areas of the body. Touching other areas of the body without washing the hands after contact with the infected area, or touching other people with infected hands spreads the infection. Coming into contact with infected socks, towels, bed-sheets, etc. can increase the chances of infection in persons with lowered immunity or weak immune systems.

Symptoms Of Athlete’s Foot:

There are three common types of athlete’s foot:

  • Moccasin (found only on the soles)
  • Interdigital (between the toes)
  • Inflammatory (blistering)

Quite often, the early symptoms of athlete’s foot go unnoticed. It can easily be mistaken for dry, flaky skin on the soles and sides of the feet. However, with the passage of time, the patient experiences severe itching between the toes, burning, peeling and cracking of skin. In severe cases, bleeding and blistering are seen.

Hence, visually, it may be difficult to identify the early stages of Athlete’s Foot infection.

  • It may simply appear as dry skin on the feet, especially the soles.
  • This develops into red, flaky, peeling skin on the soles and sides of the feet, which may spread to the upper part of the foot.
  • One or both feet may be affected.
  • Typically the rash is restricted to the soles and sides of the feet.
  • The areas between the webbing of the fourth and fifth toes usually begin to peel, flake or feel damp and sticky.

In many men, a typical infection could involve both feet and one hand. This may present in combination with a groin infection. Hence, the treatment regimen should be a composite one that involves all the areas simultaneously. The treating physician should be careful to conduct a thorough examination before prescribing medication as otherwise chances of re-infection is very high.

In severe cases, laboratory tests involving the testing of a skin sample may be required to rule out other types of skin conditions like psoriasis or dermatitis.

Complications And Secondary Infections Of Athlete’s Foot:

Though the condition is relatively mild and has more nuisance value due to itching and discomfort than any real threat to life, Athlete’s Foot needs immediate attention and treatment. Otherwise, it can cause fungal nail infections that can lead to difficulty in wearing shoes or walking. It may also result in exposing the patient to other types of bacterial infections when the skin cracks, bleeds or blisters.

Cellulite is another bacterial infection that can result from untreated Athlete’s Foot. Serious complications like septicemia and bone infections are indicated when cellulite occurs. This is a condition that needs immediate treatment with antibiotics.

Treatment And Remedies:

Most often, Athlete’s Foot is a mild and self-limiting condition which can be managed with over the counter medication and lifestyle changes. Doctors may recommend a combination of self-care and basic medication.

Severe cases require strong anti-fungal medication both topical and oral. Care must be taken to avoid spread of the infection to others and proper medical advice should be sought and followed.

Under self-care, the patients should:

  • Clean the infected area regularly and thoroughly with soap and water
  • Dry the area thoroughly after washing, especially between the toes and in skin folds
  • Never wear synthetic socks or shoes
  • Ensure that socks are always fresh and clean
  • Avoid tight shoes
  • Change clothes and socks often
  • Dry your washed clothes in strong sunlight
  • Never share clothes or towels
  • Avoid walking barefoot in damp places
  • Avoid dirty and unhygienic swimming-pools and locker-rooms

Medical intervention involves various anti-fungal preparations in tablet, powder, liquid, ointment, gels, sprays or cream forms. These are usually available at local chemists and may not require a doctor’s prescription.

Typical anti-fungal medications are composed of:

Sulconazole, clotrimazole, etonazole, ketoconazole etc. and they are available over the counter. In case the infection persists, patients may need to take oral medication as well. If the symptoms become more severe or they don’t respond to topical applications, doctors may prescribe combinations of griseofluvin, itraconazole, terbinafine etc. However, these should be taken only in consultation with a medical practitioner otherwise they may have serious reactions and side-effects like liver inflammation, etc.

Plantar-type infections may require stronger medication because the sole of the foot becomes thickened. Hence, humectants and skin softening agents like moisturizers have to be used as well as the prescribed medication so that it can penetrate through the thickened layers. Some anti-fungal oral medications should not be taken with antacids, as they will interfere with their proper absorption. Elders and very young children should not be prescribed some of these medications. In case of infection, there may be special variations and dosages.

Pregnant and lactating women need to be very careful about taking oral anti-fungal medication. Those planning a child should also consult their doctors before undergoing a course of oral anti-fungal medications, as they can impact both male and female reproductive systems.

Application of topical medications should be done in a systematic and careful manner:

  • Read the instructions carefully and follow them
  • Wash your hands before starting
  • Clean and dry the area thoroughly first
  • Apply the medication directly on the affected area
  • Include the surrounding areas as well, as symptoms may not be obvious sometimes
  • Make sure you apply the right amount and at the right time
  • Continue for as long as required by your doctor even if the symptoms seem to have disappeared
  • Wash hands after finishing

In certain severe cases which have been left untreated for long or are not responding to initial medications, doctors may recommend the use of cortisone based ointments to reduce the swelling and pain. Hydrocortisones are effective when pain, burning and itching have to be reduced. However, these should also be taken only after consulting a doctor. They should never be taken for more than seven days and never by pregnant women or lactating mothers.

Preventive Measures For Athlete’s Foot:

Once you know the causes and symptoms of Athlete’s Foot, it is much easier to ensure that you don’t catch an infection.

Some tips to avoid Athlete’s Foot:

  • Remove and air your shoes and gym clothes after exercise
  • Soak your feet in a warm solution of Betadine if you think you’re at risk
  • Alternate your pairs of shoes and don’t wear the same ones continuously
  • Home remedies like Vinegar baths, cinnamon and black tea baths are also good
  • Wash your socks, towels, gym clothes and other sports apparel regularly
  • A solution of potassium permanganate in warm water can be used to soak the feet at bedtime
  • Change your footwear often
  • Disinfect your shoes with anti-fungal powder if you’ve had an infection
  • Practice good foot hygiene
  • Try to go barefoot in your home whenever possible, to let your feet “breathe”
  • Store your shoes in well-ventilated areas
  • Never share footwear or towels
  • While in a pool area or locker-room, wear flip-flops or slippers
  • Never wear damp shoes, socks or stockings
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes and shoes in organic materials in summer
  • Keep a watch on hair-loss in your pets
  • Use a talcum/anti-fungal powder on your feet if you suspect you’ve caught an infection
  • Spray your shoes with an anti-fungal or disinfectant spray and leave them out in the sun
  • Wash your clothes in hot water with a bleaching agent if you think you may have infected your clothes
  • Keep your own bathroom and shower area dry, clean and hygienic. Wash down regularly with a bleaching agent
  • Tubs and countertops in your bathroom need special care. Keep them dry and clean
  • Dietary approaches are slow-acting, but quite effective. Cut down on sugars and increase your intake of garlic, turmeric and neem.
  • Always dry your feet last after a bath to prevent spread to other parts of your body

Visiting a dermatologist or a podiatrist can certainly help with long-standing infections. They will be able to advise the patient on more long-term measures to prevent recurrence of the infection. Family members have to be careful not to share clothes, towels and sheets.

Good hygiene, care and timely medication can certainly deal with normal cases of Athlete’s Foot. Nearly 40% of all Athlete’s Foot infections cure themselves with minor intervention. Supplementary products like talcum, moisturizer and diaper-rash ointments can also be used in combination with regular prescribed medications.

One out of every five adults in the world has at some time or the other experienced some form of Athlete’s Foot infection. These may have been spontaneously cured, responded to medication, or been left untreated and developed complications.

So, make sure you do not leave your infections untreated and take the necessary precautions and treatments at the earliest.

If you have any queries or experiences related to Athlete’s foot, you are free to share with us in the comment section below.

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