» Athlete’s Foot
Athlete’s Foot (Tinea Pedis) – Fungal Infection of the Feet
Often the subject of jokes, athlete’s foot is no laughing matter for those who suffer from it. Almost 70% of the population will be affected at some time in their lives, although it is more common in adolescent and adult males and, generally, is not seen in children below the age of 12.
What to look for:
Itching of the feet is thought by many to be the hallmark of athlete’s foot. While perhaps the most annoying and distracting part of the disorder, it is by no means the only symptom, and since it is not always present, should not be relied upon for self-diagnosis when athlete’s foot is suspected. Instead, look for other telltale symptoms – changes in the skin between the toes, generally the last two toes – in particular, a whitish discoloration, as well as dryness, redness, peeling, blistering, cracking and scaling. Athlete’s foot may also present as redness, scaling or blisters along the sides or soles of the feet. The ‘trademark’ itching may be present in varying degrees, or it may be absent altogether.
This condition can respond to over-the-counter remedies; however, not every foot rash or itch is athlete’s foot. Many other disorders can mimic some or all of the symptoms of athlete’s foot – these include psoriasis, dry skin, disturbances of the foot’s sweat mechanism, allergies to products used in shoes or insoles, or to detergents used on socks, as well as any number of other conditions. You don’t want to aggravate an irritation that has nothing to do with athlete’s foot. The best way to be certain that your condition is properly diagnosed and effectively treated is to see a podiatrist.
What it means to you:
If you’ve noticed the symptoms described, chances are strong – though not definite – that athlete’s foot, scientifically known as tinea pedis, is present. Athlete’s foot is caused by a fungal organism called Trichophython. The fungus can be found on floors and in socks, shoes and clothing, and can be spread from person to person via contact with these objects. As a fungal infection, it can also be spread unwittingly to other areas of the body, such as the underarms and groin, should the affected person scratch their feet and then touch themselves elsewhere. In addition, because athlete’s foot can cause cracking and blisters, it can provide opportunity for other infections.
What causes it?
Everyone has probably heard that athlete’s foot is caused by walking around barefoot in locker rooms and shower facilities, such as those found in health clubs, public pools, dormitories and so forth – hence, the name athlete’s foot. And to a certain extent, that’s true. Bare feet can, and do, come into contact with the culprit fungus in these areas. Fungus loves a warm, moist environment, and the constant humidity and dampness of a shower or locker room provides a great medium on which it can lurk. However, athlete’s foot is not as contagious as it’s made out to be, and in many cases, an infected family member can use showers, bathrooms and more, and never infect others living in the same household. In fact, many instances of athlete’s foot have nothing to do with showers, rest rooms, pools or the like; instead, they can be caused by fungus that develops and/or spreads due to:
- Not washing and drying feet thoroughly after athletic activity, or not washing/drying at all after feet become wet in any situation (being caught in a rainstorm, or after any activity that makes feet sweat, such as a long walk, or standing for a long period of time) – also, continuing to wear the same shoes and socks after they have gotten wet, regardless of having washed and dried the feet.
- Wearing athletic shoes (or any shoes) that have become too worn; shoes that are regularly exposed to sweat will become a breeding ground for mold spores.
- Not rotating shoes (athletic, dress or casual) between wearings; rotation allows shoes to dry and inhibits the growth of mold spores within the shoe
- Wearing others’ shoes or socks
- Not changing socks when changing shoes
- Using the same shoes for athletic and casual wear
- Wearing heavy shoes and socks that make feet sweat
- Wearing socks and/or shoes made of man-made (not breathable) fibers which do not allow for air circulation
- Not wearing stockings, socks or some sort of foot covering when trying on shoes in a shoe store
What cures it?
Rather than taking a chance on self-diagnosis and home remedies, your best bet is to make an appointment with a podiatrist who can examine your feet and give you a diagnosis, so that treatment can begin and relief can occur. (This will also help lessen the probability of secondary infections, or of the fungus spreading elsewhere on the body, which has a higher chance of taking place if the patient waits too long). The doctor may recommend a topical over-the-counter antifungal agent such as those containing miconazole or clotrimazole. In more severe cases, oral anti-fungal prescriptions may be necessary, such as ketoconazole or sulconazole. If a secondary bacterial infection is present, an antibiotic must also be used. More extensive treatment may be required if the patient’s problem has progressed to the point of having open lesions.
Who is most susceptible?
Anyone can be susceptible to athlete’s foot, given the right (or wrong) conditions. However, more often than not, it is particular behaviors which encourage fungus growth. Fungus prefers a warm, moist environment, so anyone whose feet are subjected to such an environment (such as those mentioned above in “what causes it?”) could be considered to have a higher risk .
Most importantly, athlete’s foot risk goes up for those who fail to wash and dry their feet thoroughly before putting on their shoes. This is an open invitation for athlete’s foot fungus.
How can it be prevented?
Preventing athlete’s foot is as easy as following a few simple precautions and using common sense. Fungus loves a warm, dark, damp environment, so promote dryness, light and air circulation instead. Keep feet clean and dry at all times. Dust an anti-fungal powder into shoes and/or socks (follow the directions on the container) to inhibit growth of spores. This is particularly effective in the summer, but can be done all year round.
Walking barefoot around the house, wearing sandals whenever possible, and at other times, wearing shoes made out of leather or canvas – that “breathe” – will also increase air circulation and inhibit mold growth. Choose socks that wick perspiration away from your skin.
Do not work out in a pair of shoes and then wear them for the rest of the day, or even over the next several hours. It’s an invitation to infection. Instead, carry an extra pair of shoes and socks with you. Even better, keep a spare pair of each at work and in your car. That way, should your shoes and socks become wet at any time (rainstorms, etc), slip them off, clean and dry your feet thoroughly, and change to a dry pair of shoes and socks. Don’t leave shoes that have become wet, damp or sweaty in your gym bag, your locker, your trunk, or anywhere they will not dry thoroughly and receive good air circulation.
Athletes, health club members, students and others who use public facilities can minimize their risk of infection (or re-infection) by wearing foot protection (flip-flops or other quick-drying sandals that provide separation between feet and the shower/locker room/rest room floor), and by discarding heavily used sports shoes which may have a high density of fungal spores. Remember – even expensive running or workout shoes (and even dress shoes or casual footwear) can harbor fungus if they aren’t changed often enough. Your podiatrist can advise you on how often various types of shoes should be discarded and new ones purchased.
When shoe-shopping, wear or bring along the kind of socks or hose you intend to be wearing with that shoe, and make sure you wear them while trying on the shoe. Avoid putting your bare foot into a tester shoe that other people have worn.
Finally, while it may be the ultimate tribute to friendship that two people can borrow each other’s clothes, the same generosity should NOT extend to footwear. Never wear someone else’s socks and/or shoes. It’s inviting athlete’s foot trouble. Why seek out problems?
Who can help me?
The American College of Foot & Ankle Orthopedics & Medicine (ACFAOM) stands ready to help you find a podiatric physician in your area. Simply click on our foot-help-finder link to find the professional who can help you the most.