Can Athlete's Foot Spread to Other Parts of the Body?

Athlete's foot (tinea pedis) is not just for athletes; it's a common infection. The itchy rash usually occurs between the toes and the soles of the feet. It can also affect the toenails.

Athlete's foot can spread from person to person. That's one reason to wear flip-flops in the pool locker room. It can also spread from your feet to other parts of your body.

This article will discuss how athlete's foot spreads, prevention, and treatment options.

A person applying treatment for athlete's foot.
PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier/Getty Images

How Does Athlete’s Foot Spread?

Fungi prefer warm, moist environments and can live on skin, nails, and hair. The infection spreads through skin-to-skin contact or contaminated items. That's why it can easily migrate from one part of your foot to another or from one foot to the other.

It can also spread to other body parts. This is likely to happen after you've touched your feet. Once your hands pick up fungi, any part of the body you touch is vulnerable to infection. It might also spread if you wipe your feet and use the same towel on the rest of your body before washing it.

The infection goes by different names, depending on which body part is affected. This type of fungal infection on the skin of the torso, legs, or arms is called ringworm. And when it occurs around the groin or inner thighs, it's jock itch.

How Is Athlete’s Foot Transmitted?

Athlete's foot is contagious. It can spread from person to person or through contact with contaminated items. The fungi also live in the soil or on animals such as cats, dogs, and rodents.

Fungal spores can survive for months or even years in damp areas. You can get athlete's foot when you walk barefoot or touch an area affected by someone who has athlete's foot, such as:

  • Around swimming pools and hot tubs
  • Locker rooms and changing rooms
  • Showers and foot baths
  • Towels, bath mats, bedding

Risk factors for athlete's foot include sweaty feet or broken skin on the feet.

How to Prevent the Spread of Athlete’s Foot

It's important to prevent spreading athlete's foot to other parts of your body or anyone else. If you already have a treatment plan, stick with it. Find out if anyone in your household has an untreated athlete's foot.

In addition to wearing flip-flops in public spaces where people walk barefoot (gym, pool, locker room), here are some basic ways to help prevent the spread:

  • Use a separate towel for your feet and dry them thoroughly, especially between your toes
  • Wash your hands immediately after touching your feet
  • Wash towels after every use and bedding and bath mats often
  • Remove your shoes and let your feet breathe when you can
  • If your shoes get wet, make sure they're completely dry before wearing them again
  • Choose socks that wick away moisture
  • Keep your nails short and clean
  • Put your socks on before your underwear
  • Don't wear shoes that are too tight or make your feet sweaty
  • Don't share towels, nail files, shoes, or socks

With the right treatment, athlete's foot usually goes away within two to four weeks. But it's hard to tell when you're no longer contagious. It's important to finish all your medication, even if symptoms have cleared, so it doesn't become a recurrent problem.

Athlete’s Foot Treatment

It's best to start treating the athlete's foot before it can spread. It may respond to topical antifungal treatments you can get over-the-counter (OTC). If it's not improving within two weeks, you may need prescription-strength medication from a healthcare provider.

A healthcare provider may be able to diagnose athlete's foot by its appearance. They can also take a small skin scraping to examine it for fungi.

Antifungal medicines to treat athlete's foot include:

  • Lamisil (terbinafine)
  • Onmel, Sporanox (itraconazole)
  • Diflucan (fluconazole)

Some people may benefit from also using a topical keratolytic, such as salicylic acid. You'll likely have to apply the medication once or twice daily for one to six weeks. It's important to follow directions and use all the medication.

When to Seek Medical Care

Speak with a healthcare provider if:

  • You've tried OTC treatments, but they haven't worked.
  • You've used all your prescription medications but still have symptoms.
  • Symptoms are not improving or are getting worse.
  • You're unable to wear shoes comfortably.
  • You also have diabetes or a weakened immune system.

Summary

Athlete's foot is a common foot infection. But it doesn't always end at the foot. The infection can spread through direct contact, say on your fingers, or through a contaminated object, such as a towel. You can take steps to prevent spreading athlete's foot to other areas of your body or anyone else. Athlete's foot may clear up with OTC antifungal treatments. If they don't work within a couple of weeks, see a healthcare provider for prescription-strength medicines.

A Word From Verywell

Anyone of any age can get athlete's foot. As common as it is, you might not recognize it when you see it. So if you're not sure about a rash on your feet, it's best to have a healthcare provider take a look. Rashes are often easier to treat before they have a chance to spread. The right diagnosis is the first step toward healthy feet.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why does my athlete's foot keep spreading?

    It may spread after you touch an affected area, then touch another part of your body before washing your hands. Or you may be frequently exposed to warm, damp conditions. As a result, you may need a stronger or different medication.

  • Do I need to throw away my shoes if I have athlete's foot?

    If they're worn or torn, it's a good idea. Otherwise, clean and disinfect them. Try alternating with another pair, allowing them to air out and dry thoroughly between uses. If the athlete's foot won't go away or recurs, it might be best to ditch them.

  • How long can foot fungus live in shoes?

    Fungi may live for months without cleaning, disinfecting, and keeping shoes in the open air (rather than a gym bag).

  • Should I wear socks to bed with athlete's foot?

    Fungi love moist, closed-in places. If your feet are in socks all day, bedtime may be the best time to expose your feet to air. It also depends on the severity of the infection and what medication you're using, so it's a good question for your healthcare provider.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Tinea (ringworm, jock itch, athlete's foot).

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  4. National Health Service U.K. Athlete's foot.

  5. Gupta AK, Daigle D, Paquet M, et al. Topical treatments for athlete’s foot. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;2018(1):CD010863. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010863.pub2

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By Ann Pietrangelo
Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer, health reporter, and author of two books about her personal health experiences.