Athlete's Foot Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

You don't have to be an athlete to get tinea pedis

Woman applying ointment to foot, low section
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Tinea pedis is the medical term for athlete's foot, one of the most well-known fungal foot conditions. Tinea pedis got its nickname because of its tendency to infect athletes, who often wear hot, sweaty athletic shoes that provide a good breeding ground for the fungus that causes the condition. In reality, athlete's foot can affect anyone, young or old, regardless of shoe style.

Symptoms

Characteristics of athlete's foot include an itchy or burning rash that may have such symptoms as redness, odor, scaling peeling skin ​or small blisters that may resemble pimples. When athlete's foot occurs between the toes it often appears as pale-looking skin that has been over-exposed to moisture from sweat.

Chronic athlete's foot has a "moccasin" appearance, where the rash covers the soles and sides of the feet. This type of rash has fine, scaling skin that gives it a powdery appearance. Sometimes this chronic infection can spread to a hand due to contact with the foot from scratching. Acute tinea pedis has characteristic blisters or peeling skin with more intense redness.

Causes

Tinea pedis is caused by dermatophytes, which are fungi that infect the skin, hair, and nails. Sometimes yeast can cause foot infections and rashes, often between the toes. People who are prone to tinea pedis are also susceptible to toenail fungal infections (onychomycosis).

This is because both conditions are caused by the same types of fungi.

Some people are prone to athlete's foot because of a genetic predisposition or because of factors that cause a compromised immune system. Examples include steroid medications or chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

One of the most important factors contributing to athlete's foot is sweat.

Sweat is a normal response to the hot environment inside a shoe. Some people may have hyperhidrosis, or excess sweating, which can increase the chance of fungal infection even further. The heat and humidity inside shoes create an ideal environment for dermatophytes and other fungi to thrive.

Diagnosis

Many people self-diagnose athlete's foot at home. If over-the-counter (OTC) medicines have not resolved your athlete's foot, it is best to seek medical treatment to rule out other possible causes. It is also best to seek treatment if the symptoms include intense redness, blistering, peeling, cracked skin, or pain. Lab tests such as a KOH prep or culture may be used to determine if the cause of symptoms is a fungal infection. These conditions can mimic the symptoms of athlete's foot:

Treatment of Athlete's Foot

In most cases, you will treat tinea pedis with over-the-counter products. Look for brands of antifungal creams that have either butenafine or terbinafine as active ingredients. These medications have good potency against most of the organisms that cause tinea pedis.

  • Always follow the anti-fungal medication's instructions, whether prescription or non-prescription.
  • Use anti-fungal sneaker sprays or powders in boots and shoes.

Some cases of tinea pedis can cause an id reaction. An id reaction is where the rash spreads to other parts of the body, often the hands and chest. This type of rash is also itchy and produces bumps and blisters, but is not caused by the spread of the fungus. Rather, it's an allergic response to the original foot rash. An id reaction will clear on its own once the original athlete's foot resolves.

Prevention

To reduce your risks, take these measures:

  • Wash and dry your feet each day, especially being sure to dry between your toes.
  • Go barefoot at home as much as possible.
  • Use synthetic socks made of acrylic or polypropylene. These materials wick away moisture better than cotton, which holds moisture close to the skin. Change your socks whenever they get sweaty.
  • Wear sneakers with good ventilation, such as those that have breathable mesh tops.
  • Allow your shoes to dry and air out when you are not wearing them. Don't keep them in a gym bag where they won't get air. You may want to alternate pairs of shoes each day to ensure they get dry between wearings.
  • Wear sandals or other shoes when in areas where fungi thrive, such as around public pools or in locker rooms.

Sources:

View Article Sources
  • Athlete's Foot. American Podiatric Medical Association. http://www.apma.org/Learn/FootHealth.cfm?ItemNumber=978.
  • Hall BJ, Hall JC. Sauer's Manual of Skin Diseases. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 2010.