How to Treat Different Types of Athlete’s Foot

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Athlete’s foot, also called tinea pedis, is a foot infection caused by various types of dermatophytes, which are fungi that cause skin infections. There are several types of athlete's foot, with different symptoms, treatments, and causes.

Foot rashes are a fairly common problem, but they aren't always caused by athlete's foot. If you develop skin changes on your foot, with or without discomfort, you should see your healthcare provider so you can get an accurate diagnosis and get started on the right treatment.

Toe and nail fungus. Woman at a dermatologist.
robertprzybysz / Getty Images

Types

The different types of athlete's foot can be recognized by their symptoms and where they appear. Each is caused by a different kind of fungus.

Chronic Interdigital Athlete’s Foot

Chronic interdigital athlete’s foot, the most common type, is often caused by Trichophyton interdigitale. It is characterized by scaling, maceration, and fissures, usually in the webbed space between the fourth and fifth toes.

This type of athlete's foot starts as a result of wearing tight-fitting, non-porous shoes that compress the toes, creating a warm, moist environment in the webbed spaces that can promote fungal growth.

The fungal infection can be complicated by a secondary bacterial foot infection that's more severe than athlete's foot and that requires different treatment.

In chronic interdigital athlete’s foot, itching is typically most intense when the socks and shoes are removed.

Chronic Scaly (Moccasin-Type) Athlete’s Foot

Multiple fungi can cause moccasin-type athlete’s foot, resulting in dry, scaling skin on the sole of the foot. The scale is very fine and silvery, and the skin underneath is usually pink and tender.

Your hands may also be infected, and the usual pattern of infection is two feet and one hand, or one foot and two hands. Less commonly, this infection can spread to other areas of the body.

Chronic scaly athlete’s foot is associated with fungal nail infections, which may lead to recurrent skin infections.

Acute Vesicular Athlete’s Foot

This is the least common type of athlete’s foot, caused by multiple fungi. It often starts with chronic interdigital toe web infection. This type of athlete’s foot is also known as “jungle rot,” and historically was a disabling problem for servicemen fighting in warm, humid conditions.

Acute vesicular athlete’s foot is characterized by the sudden development of painful blisters on the sole or top of the foot.

Another wave of blisters may follow the first and may also involve other sites of the body, such as the arms, chest, or sides of the fingers. These blisters are caused by an allergic reaction to the fungus on the foot—called an id reaction.

Risk Factors

Athlete’s foot affects about 15% of adults, and it is more common in males than females. It can also affect children.

Athlete’s foot can affect anyone, but there are some predisposing factors:

  • Exposure, through sharing footwear or walking barefoot in a contaminated area (such as a locker room)
  • Wearing shoes or socks for a prolonged period of time
  • Having damp feet enclosed in shoes or socks
  • Diabetes
  • Impaired immune system, due to disease or immunosuppressive medication

These risk factors can predispose to any type of athlete's foot, and the type you might get would depend on which dermatophyte you are exposed to.

After you have had an episode of athlete's foot, you can become a carrier and you might be more susceptible to recurrences and complications—especially if it wasn't fully treated.

Diagnosis

Athlete’s foot is diagnosed with a physical examination, and possibly laboratory tests. Your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms, how long you've had them, and whether you have predisposing factors. Your healthcare provider will also visually inspect your feet, as well as other areas of your skin.

You might also have a KOH test. This is a painless procedure in which a skin scraping is taken from scales, rash, or a blister for rapid testing. A positive KOH test confirms the presence of dermatophytes, but a negative KOH test does not rule out athlete’s foot. Fungal elements can be difficult to isolate in interdigital and moccasin-type athlete’s foot.

A culture is a more specific test in which the sample is sent to the lab to check for growth of the infectious organism. This culture takes several days and can more specifically identify the type of dermatophyte.

If another cause of your foot symptoms is suspected—such as a bacterial infection, poison ivy, or vascular disease—you might have specific tests for that.

Treatment

If you have athlete's foot, you will need medical treatment, as well as lifestyle modification. Your healthcare provider will recommend the best methods for washing and drying your feet throughout the duration of your treatment.

You might also be advised about strategies to prevent reinfection and the spread of infection, such as washing towels and sheets. Additionally, you may need to change your habits when it comes to wearing shoes and socks to avoid excessive moisture.

Home remedies, such as washing your feet in a vinegar solution, can also be helpful when used along with medication but are not curative when used without medical treatment. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider before using a home remedy for your athlete's foot. Some conditions, such as a bacterial infection, can be exacerbated if you add home remedies to your treatment plan.

Mild

Mild cases of athlete’s foot, especially interdigital toe web infections, can be treated with topical antifungal creams or sprays such as Tinactin (tolnaftate) or Lotrimin (clotrimazole).

Topical medications should be applied twice a day until the rash is completely resolved, or as recommended by your healthcare provider.

Severe

More serious infections and moccasin-type athlete’s foot should be treated with oral antifungal medications such as terbinafine or itraconazole for two to six months. All oral antifungal medications can affect the liver; therefore, your provider will want to monitor your liver function regularly.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How can I cure athlete’s foot fast? 

The fastest way to cure athlete's foot is to recognize it and see your healthcare provider as soon as you notice symptoms. Use your medication as directed and be vigilant about preventing re-infection.

A Word From Verywell

Athlete's foot is a common foot condition. It can be uncomfortable and unsightly. Some types are contagious and complications can occur, so it's best to try to nip it in the bud if you start to develop symptoms. Additionally, sometimes other conditions can appear similar to athlete's foot. It's important to get the correct diagnosis, because the treatments are not the same.

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