Woman in shorts wearing white sneakers tying shoe

Learn all about athlete's foot

Learn about what athlete’s foot is and how you can catch it. Find out about itchy foot and other symptoms of this foot disease and how you can treat it.

What is Athlete’s Foot?

You don’t have to be an athlete to catch it! Athlete’s foot, also called tinea pedis or alipunga, is a highly contagious fungal infection that affects the skin on your feet but can spread to your toenails and even hands.

It starts with an itchy foot and is easily caught through direct contact with an infected person, sharing bedlinens, touching towels or clothing infected with the fungus or walking barefoot in common areas, like gyms, swimming pools, communal showers and changing rooms. You are more likely to get foot diseases like this if the skin on your feet is damaged or if you have wet or sweaty feet. The fungi thrives in warm, moist conditions, so you should avoid wearing damp socks and shoes. That’s why it’s most commonly found in athletes!

Athlete’s foot often occurs between your toes, but it can also affect the soles and sides of your feet. Athlete’s foot usually starts on one or both of your feet, but you can unwittingly spread it to your hands or other areas of your body simply by scratching or picking at the infected parts of your feet.

Athlete’s foot symptoms

Athlete’s foot is contagious, and is accompanied by annoying symptoms. Thankfully, this skin fungal infection can be easily treated. You might be suffering from athlete’s foot if you have these symptoms:  

  • A burning and itchy sensation on your toes or foot, especially after you take off your shoes and socks.  

  • You have scaly, very dry, cracked or peeling skin.  

  • You notice a splitting, softening and whitening of the skin between your toes. 

  • You have cracked skin on the sole or heels of your foot. 

  • You have blisters on your feet. Some types of athlete’s foot can also be accompanied by blisters or ulcers. 

  • You have smelly feet. This symptom can be caused by yeast and bacteria that can also spread on your feet.1,2 

Shoes

Athlete’s foot treatment

You should always try to start the treatment as soon as you notice the symptoms. Athlete’s foot can be easily treated with over-the-counter topical antifungal medications, which come in the form of creams, sprays and powders.3 Antifungal medications for athlete’s foot can be bought from your local pharmacy, high street shops and supermarkets, or purchased online. They are easy to apply and penetrate into your skin to stop fungal growth, kill the fungi and thus relieve your symptoms.

When to see a doctor 

If you find that you can’t get rid of the infection with over-the-counter medications, ask your doctor for a prescription. You might need other topical or oral antifungal medications. You should also see a doctor if:

  • You are pregnant or elderly. Antifungal medications might not be suitable for you so the doctor can recommend an alternative therapy.

  • You are in a lot of discomfort. 

  • You experience skin redness in your foot, which can feel hot and cause a lot of pain. This might be a more serious infection than athlete’s foot.

  • You have diabetes. Foot problems for people with diabetes can be more serious. Athlete’s foot can lead to other bacterial infections.

  • Your immune system is weakened.4

Athlete’s foot prevention

If you think you might be at risk of catching an athlete's foot, follow simple rules that can help you avoid catching the infection in the first place or stop it from returning.

You should:

  • Always dry your feet carefully, especially between your toes. Dab them dry rather than rubbing them.

  • Wear clean socks every day and change them if it’s hot or after playing sports. Cotton socks are the best.

  • Take your shoes off at home to let your feet “breathe”.

  • Use a separate towel for your feet and wash it regularly.

  • Wear sandals when you can.5

You should avoid:

  • Scratching affected skin. This can spread the infection to other parts of your body.

  • Walking around barefoot especially in the locker rooms, swimming pools and communal showers.

  • Sharing towels, socks or shoes with other people.

  • Wearing the same pair of shoes for two days in the row.

  • Wearing shoes that make your feet hot and sweaty.6

REFERENCES:

  1. Check if you have athlete's foot, in: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/athletes-foot/
  2. Tinea Pedis, in: Hainer, B.L., Dermatophyte Infections, in: American Family Physician 2003, vol. 67, Number 1
  3. A pharmacist can help with athlete's foot, in: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/athletes-foot/
  4. See a GP if…, in: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/athletes-foot/
  5. How you can help treat and prevent athlete's foot yourself, in: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/athletes-foot/
  6. Ibid.