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Education Library: Athletes Foot

Introduction

Athletes are not the only people who can get athlete’s foot. A fungus that thrives in warm environments, such as poolside surfaces and locker rooms, causes the skin infection to develop between the toes or on the soles of the feet. Many cases of athlete’s foot can be treated with over-the-counter products. You should contact your podiatrist or dermatologist if you have a severe or prolonged athlete’s foot infection.

Anatomy

Your skin is the largest organ of your body and covers your body to protect it from the environment. The skin has three layers. The epidermis is the skin’s outermost layer. It protects the inner skin layers. Basal cells at the bottom of the epidermis move upward to replace the outermost cells that wear off. When athlete’s foot fungus (dermatophytes) infects the skin, the basal cells respond by overproducing cells. As the excess cells reach the skin’s surface, they cause the symptoms and appearance of athlete’s foot.

Causes

Athlete’s foot is a fungus infection of the skin. It results from contact with the fungus and an environment favorable for fungal growth. Simply being exposed to the fungus alone does not cause athlete’s foot. A warm moist environment, such as between the toes, is an ideal place for the fungus to grow.

Symptoms

Athlete’s foot can cause mild to severe symptoms, primarily an itchy stinging rash between the toes or on the feet. The rash may appear as bumps, blisters, scales, peeling skin, or cracked skin. Athlete’s foot may have an unpleasant odor. It can recur.

Diagnosis

A doctor can diagnose athlete’s foot by reviewing your medical history and examining the affected skin. The doctor may brush your skin with a swab to obtain cell samples to examine to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

Many cases of athlete’s foot can be treated with over-the-counter medicated powders, creams, sprays, or lotions that are specifically formulated to fight the athlete’s foot fungus. If your condition is severe or unresponsive to treatment, your doctor may prescribe stronger medication to kill the fungus. You should keep your feet clean and dry. Wear shoes or sandals that allow good airflow. Do not cover your feet during sleep. Wear cotton socks, and change them every day or if they get damp.

Prevention

There are many steps that you can take to help prevent athlete’s foot including:

  • Do not share shoes or socks with others.
  • Wear shoes or shower shoes in public areas, such as locker rooms, gyms, and showers.
  • Keep your feet clean and dry.
  • Wear roomy shoes with good air circulation, or sandals.
  • Wear cotton socks and change them daily or sooner if the socks are damp.
  • Keep your floors and showers very clean at home.
  • Use antifungal spray or powder daily.

Am I at Risk?

The fungus that causes athlete’s foot thrives in warm damp areas, including public areas such as locker rooms, showers, gyms, and pool surrounds. Walking barefoot increases the likelihood that the fungus can contact your skin. The fungus can also grow on damp objects, such as towels, socks, or shoes. Athlete’s foot is contagious; meaning you can get it from another person or even a pet.

Complications

Open skin from scratching the athlete’s foot rash is at risk for a bacterial skin infection (cellulitis). Contact your doctor if your skin develops signs of a bacterial infection such as swelling, red streaks, and pain. The athlete’s foot fungus can spread to other parts of the body, such as the toenails, heels, and hands. People with diabetes should contact their doctors if they have athlete’s foot.

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