Foot Conditions A-Z
Athlete's foot (tinea pedis) is a fungal infection that develops in the moist areas between the toes and in other areas of the foot. According to the 2012 National Foot Health Assessment conducted for the Institute for Preventive Foot Health by the NPD Group, 20 percent of adults age 21 and older (44 million people) have experienced athlete’s foot. The condition is more common in men than in women, with 29 percent of men having experienced it, compared with only 12 percent of women.
Common symptoms include the following:
- stinging and burning between the toes and/or on the soles of the feet
- itchy blisters
- cracking and peeling skin, especially between the toes and on the soles of the feet
- excessive dryness of the skin of the feet
Athlete’s foot is usually “interdigital” (occurring between the toes). It also manifests in what is called a “moccasin” pattern--thickening of the skin and a rash on the sole and heel of the foot--and in blisters that occur between the toes, on the sole and heel, and occasionally on the top of the foot.
Athlete’s foot may also be accompanied by toenail fungus (onychomychosis), which can occur with or without the symptoms of athlete’s foot.
The fungus that causes athlete’s foot is a mold-like strain that is very contagious and is most often picked up from going barefooted in places where people with the fungus have walked or stood (for example, swimming pools, showers, bathrooms, saunas, fitness centers, locker rooms).
How it Spreads
Athlete’s foot can be spread by skin-to-skin contact between people and even between people and household pets. People with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to athlete’s foot and other fungal infections.
Notably, the fungus thrives in dark, moist environments such as those created by thick, tight shoes that squeeze the toes together and create warm, moist areas between them. Damp footwear and warm, humid conditions also promote fungal growth; plastic shoes in particular provide a favorable environment for fungal growth and infection. The fungus can live in footwear and on surfaces of mats, rugs, clothes and linens for up to six months.
Prevention and Treatment
To help prevent athlete’s foot and provide optimal foot protection, IPFH suggests wearing properly selected and fitted, as part of an integrated approach, padded socks that help wick moisture away from the foot, with shoes with non-slip outsoles and any inserts or orthotics prescribed or recommended by a doctor or foot health professional. Peer-reviewed, published studies have shown that wearing clinically tested padded socks can help protect against injuries to the skin/soft tissue of the foot.
Properly designed and fitted shoes or boots have uppers made of mesh or another material that evacuates moisture while not allowing it in. If the shoe upper is made of leather, it should have vents or other openings that help evacuate moisture. Waterproof shoes do not evacuate moisture and may create a wet environment conducive to the growth of athlete’s foot fungus. Well-designed footwear also has few seams or raised areas that can cause pressure points or rub the skin, irritating feet that already have been affected by athlete’s foot.
Other steps to take:
- Check your feet at least a few times a week, especially between the toes, to see if there are any indications of athlete’s foot. If you have diabetes, check your feet every day.
- Try to avoid going barefooted, especially in public places.
- Wash your feet well and dry them off after bathing, especially between the toes.
Athlete’s foot generally can be treated effectively with over-the-counter topical medications. Particularly difficult cases may require prescription medication from a foot specialist or a dermatologist.
Athlete’s foot is particularly dangerous for people with diabetes and diabetic foot issues. That’s because diabetes can cause loss of feeling in the feet, and therefore lack of awareness of a fungal infection. Untreated, the fungus can cause blisters, lesions, open sores and allergic reactions due to the release of proteins into the bloodstream. In people with diabetes, any lesions in the skin of the feet can worsen over time and become ulcerations.
People with diabetes who contract athlete’s foot should see their doctor. Always talk to your doctor if you have soreness, pain, redness, swelling or other indications of foot problems that persist for more than a few days.