What Is Athlete’s Foot?
Athletes are not the only ones who suffer from athlete’s foot. The infection can transfer from person to person via direct or indirect contact. For example, walking barefoot across a floor that an infected person has also walked across can spread the infection.
Athlete’s foot is a very common foot infection that can develop on the skin between the toes and on the bottoms of the feet. It is a fungal infection and the fungi lives in both indoor and outdoor areas (x). It also thrives in warm and damp places, such as enclosed shoes and locker rooms that athletes commonly use and share—hence the name (x).
Causes of Athlete’s Foot
The fungus that causes athlete’s foot is called tinea pedis. It belongs to a group of contagious fungal skin infections, called tinea. Doctors refer to the infections using different names based on where it occurs on the body. For example, tinea capitis is more commonly known as ringworm, specifically on the scalp. But tinea corporis is ringworm that develops specifically on the body. It transfers spores from one person to another via pieces of skin protein called keratin. This protein sheds continuously from the feet. Tinea fungi are very contagious (x, x).
Symptoms of Athlete’s Foot
Patients usually first notice an infection when the skin starts to itch and feel sore. Then it starts to crack and peel. Recurrent itching, rashes and peeling skin on the base of the foot are all common and noticeable symptoms of athlete’s foot (x, x).
Because athlete’s foot is a fungal infection, it triggers inflammation in the body in an attempt to fight the infection. The inflammation can make the feet look white and inflamed (x).
Unpleasant Smell, Tingling and Weeping
It is not uncommon for those who have contracted athlete’s foot to experience a range of tactile symptoms including tingling and stinging. The infection often causes an unpleasant foot odor, as well as tears in the skin that may ooze liquid (x).
Types of Athlete’s Foot
Generally speaking, there are three types of athlete’s foot and each type affects the feet in slightly different ways.
Toe Web Infection
The toe web infection usually develops between the fourth and fifth toes. At the same time, the skin often cracks and starts to look scaly. If there is also a bacterial infection, the skin can break down even more (x).
Moccasin Type Infection
The second type is called moccasin type infection. First, the patient may feel mild soreness. Then the skin on the bottom of the feet or the heels starts to thicken and crack. In severe cases, the toenails become infected and can thicken, crumble and even disintegrate. When fungal infections develop in the toenails, they require separate treatment (x).
Vesicular Athlete’s Foot
This form of athlete’s foot usually starts abruptly with the onset of blisters full of fluid under the skin and on the bottoms of the feet. These blisters can occur anywhere on the foot (x).
When to See a Doctor
Usually, patients can treat the symptoms of athlete’s foot with home remedies. However, some cases may require medical treatment. See a doctor if the skin on the feet starts to crack, scale or peel severely. Pay attention to whether the infection appears to be spreading or if the symptoms do not improve after two to four weeks (x).
If the patient notices blisters or signs of bacterial infection, the condition may require medical attention. Signs of bacterial infections include pain, swelling, tenderness, heat, red streaks on the area, discharge or fever. Patients are at a higher risk for bacterial infections if they have diabetes or other conditions that cause poor circulation in the body. The infection may affect the feet and even the legs (x).
Preventing Athlete’s Foot
Preventive foot hygiene is extremely important, especially for those who are at a higher risk of exposure to the fungus or who have had problems fighting off this infection before. Walking barefoot in public places or simply walking across a damp floor can transfer the fungal infection from person to person.
Avoid Sharing Towels & Shoes
Sharing shoes, socks and towels can spread the infection. Try to use separate towels to dry the feet and the body. Be careful sharing yoga or exercise mats in public gyms as well, as they may carry fungus. Sharing nail clippers is a common transmission factor. Do not share personal nail clippers and make sure that any nail salon follows correct hygiene protocols (x).
Protect the Feet
To lessen the risk of infection, wear flip flops or other protective footwear in public places or on floors where infected people have walked (x).
Thorough Washing & Drying
Generally, one of the best ways to treat athlete’s foot is to not only keep the feet clean, but also to keep them as dry as possible. Remember the fungus thrives in moist environments. After swimming or showering, make sure to dry the feet completely, including between the toes (x). Continue this practice when you have visible signs of athlete’s foot and after the symptoms seem to have dissipated in order to prevent a recurrence.
Breathable Socks & Footwear
Wearing socks made with natural fibers that allow the feet to breathe makes the area untenable for the fungus. Make sure to change socks at least once a day and change them more often if the feet sweat throughout the day.
Try to change shoes every day so that they have time to dry completely before you put them on. It is best to wear loose, ventilated shoes. Dermatologists recommend leather or canvas shoes. Heavy boots and shoes made from synthetic leather or rubber allow less air to circulate. Additionally, discard any pairs of shoes that may be infected with the fungus. Wearing shoes that carry the fungus can cause the infection to come back (x, x).
Heat Treat Fabric
Washing and drying laundry, including clothes and sheets, on high heat can help eliminate the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. To avoid reinfections, it’s imperative to wash socks and towels exposed to infected feet (x).
Treatment for Athlete’s Foot
Over the Counter Medication
The most common treatments for athlete’s foot are available over the counter at local pharmacies. The standard medications are available as creams, sprays or powders. However, sometimes a patient will require a prescription for pills or topical medicine if the case is severe (x, x).
Most people have baking soda in their homes, so it can offer a simple, inexpensive and readily available form of relief for athlete’s foot infections. According to studies, baking soda has antifungal properties for the skin (x). Just mix it with warm water and soak the feet for a few minutes. Make sure to dry the feet thoroughly after.
Researchers state that sulfur has antifungal, antibacterial and keratolytic properties. It may be an effective tool in dermatology and it may help relieve athlete’s foot (x).
Tea Tree Oil
Additionally, tea tree oil is used as a natural antiseptic with antifungal and antibacterial properties. According to studies, it may be an effective method to kill fungi and researchers concluded that it was more effective than other antifungal treatments (x).
Supplements for Immune Health
Those with weakened immune systems are at risk for developing athlete’s foot because the body is unable to fight off the infection (x). Taking vitamins and supplements may help strengthen the immune system to protect the body more effectively. However, it’s important to consult a doctor before taking any supplements. They are not a proper treatment for any medical condition.
This is a fairly traditional home remedy for athlete’s foot. The active ingredients in garlic extract include several vitamins from the B vitamin group, Vitamin C and other antioxidants. The recommended intake for garlic extract powder is two daily servings of 650 mg with a meal unless a physician recommends a different dosage.
Originating in Southeast Asia, ginger root is a natural agent that fights inflammation and strengthens the immune system. It also has the potential to promote healthy skin by improving collagen production, which provides skin elasticity. This keeps the skin strong and prevents injury. The recommended dosage for ginger root extract powder is 1,000 mg per day unless a doctor advises otherwise. This supplement can cause heartburn, so take it with at least 8 oz of water.
This herb originates in the western United States, Canada and Europe. Echinacea has derivatives of glycoproteins, polysaccharides and caffeic acid that help stimulate the immune system. It helps protect the body from pathogens and infections. The recommended dosage for echinacea extract powder is 450 mg once or twice per day, or following a doctor’s instructions.
The Bottom Line
Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that forms on the soles and sides of the feet, as well as the toes. The symptoms vary according to the type of infection but generally the condition causes itching, flaking, cracking, tears in the skin and weeping sores. The infection is highly contagious. It transfers via direct contact or though second hand contact. For example, uninfected feet that touch the same surface as infected feet can transmit keratin flakes that carry the fungus.
Athlete’s foot is treatable. Home remedies may treat the infection, including tea tree oil, sulfur and baking soda. Other treatment options include over the counter medication or topical medicines. To prevent athlete’s foot, make sure to avoid sharing towels, shoes or socks. This reduces the risk of contracting and spreading the infection. Let the feet breathe as much as possible with ventilated shoes, but always wear shoes walking around public showers, locker rooms or swimming pools.
Those with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of developing athlete’s foot because the body is less able to protect itself from infections. However, there are supplements that can help strengthen the immune system, such as garlic, ginger root and echinacea. Before starting a supplement regimen, always consult a doctor and follow all medical advice. Supplements are also not a proper treatment for any medical treatment, although they may help benefit overall health.