Athlete’s Foot (Tinea Pedis)

Athlete’s foot — also called tinea pedis — is a contagious fungal infection that affects the skin on the feet. It can also spread to the toenails and the hands. The fungal infection is called athlete’s foot because it’s commonly seen in athletes.

Athlete’s foot isn’t serious, but sometimes it’s hard to cure. If you have diabetes or a weakened immune system and suspect you have athlete’s foot, you should call your doctor right away.

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Athlete’s foot occurs when the tinea fungus grows on the feet. You can catch the fungus through direct contact with an infected person, or by touching surfaces contaminated with the fungus. The fungus thrives in warm, moist environments. It’s commonly found in showers, on locker room floors, and around swimming pools.

Anyone can get athlete’s foot, but certain behaviors increase your risk. Factors that increase your risk of getting athlete’s foot include:

  • visiting public places barefoot, especially locker rooms, showers, and swimming pools
  • sharing socks, shoes, or towels with an infected person
  • wearing tight, closed-toe shoes
  • keeping your feet wet for long periods of time
  • having sweaty feet
  • having a minor skin or nail injury on your foot

There are many possible symptoms of athlete’s foot, which include:

  • itching, stinging, and burning between your toes or on soles of your feet
  • blisters on your feet that itch
  • cracking and peeling skin on your feet, most commonly between your toes and on your soles
  • dry skin on your soles or sides of your feet
  • raw skin on your feet
  • discolored, thick, and crumbly toenails
  • toenails that pull away from the nail bed

A doctor may diagnose athlete’s foot by the symptoms. Or, a doctor may order a skin test if they aren’t sure a fungal infection is causing your symptoms.

A skin lesion potassium hydroxide exam is the most common test for athlete’s foot. A doctor scrapes off a small area of infected skin and places it in potassium hydroxide. The KOH destroys normal cells and leaves the fungal cells untouched so they are easy to see under a microscope.

Athlete’s foot can often be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) topical antifungal medications. If OTC medications don’t treat your infection, your doctor may prescribe topical or oral prescription-strength antifungal medications. Your doctor may also recommend home treatments to help clear up the infection.

OTC medications

There are many OTC topical antifungal medications, including:

  • miconazole (Desenex)
  • terbinafine (Lamisil AT)
  • clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF)
  • butenafine (Lotrimin Ultra)
  • tolnaftate (Tinactin)

Prescription medications

Some of the prescription medications your doctor may prescribe for athlete’s foot include:

  • topical, prescription-strength clotrimazole or miconazole
  • oral antifungal medications such as itraconazole (Sporanox), fluconazole (Diflucan), or prescription-strength terbinafine (Lamisil)
  • topical steroid medications to reduce painful inflammation
  • oral antibiotics if bacterial infections develop due to raw skin and blisters

Home care

Your doctor may recommend that you soak your feet in salt water or diluted vinegar to help dry up blisters.

Alternative therapy

Tea tree oil has been used as an alternative therapy for treating athlete’s foot with some success. A study from 2002 reported that a 50 percent solution of tea tree oil effectively treated athlete’s foot in 64 percent of trial participants.

Ask your doctor if a tea tree oil solution can help your athlete’s foot. Tea tree oil can cause contact dermatitis in some people.

Fortunately, there are measures you can take to avoid athlete’s foot. Besides keeping your feet dry, it is important to change your socks frequently, especially if you sweat a lot. Stop wearing shoes made from synthetic material and do not wear the same pair every day. Sharing shoes are not recommended, either. Never walk barefoot when you are in public places. If you have already got infected, you should treat it as soon as possible. Follow your doctor’s directions on how long to use topical treatment so that the fungi are completely killed.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

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