Definition & Overview

Athlete’s foot, also referred to in medical terms as tinea pedis, is a fungal skin infection that affects the feet. The disease usually begins at the webbed area between the toes, but can quickly spread to the soles of the feet, go up towards the groin and spread throughout the body.

The disease is contagious. The fungus can be transferred to your shoes and will thrive there if your feet sweat. Once you’ve been infected, you can unknowingly spread the disease by touching other people.

There are three main types of Athlete’s foot: Toe Web Infection, Moccasin Type Infection, and Vesicular Type Infection. A toe web infection occurs on the webbed portion between toes. The condition is characterized by scaly skin that peels and cracks. A moccasin type infection is identified by cracked skin on the soles of the foot. A vesicular type infection is characterized by a sudden outbreak of blisters on the foot.

Cause of Condition

The primary causes of Athlete’s foot are the fungi trichophyton mentagrophytes and trichophyton rubrum. Contamination can occur almost anywhere, but mostly in public areas where you usually walk barefoot, like shower rooms, lockers, a swimming pool, or even at home. You can also be contaminated by touching clothing of an infected person. Even a small flake of skin can transfer the fungus.

Your shoes provide an excellent environment for the fungus to multiply. When you wear shoes, your feet can become sweaty, especially if you’re active and in a humid environment. The fungus thrives in a moist and warm environment and sweaty feet inside warm shoes are the perfect places for them to develop.

If left untreated, the condition can worsen and complications can arise. Instead of just infecting your feet, the fungus can spread to your hands, underneath your nails, and your groin. When the fungus infects the nail, it will usually be more difficult to treat.

Key Symptoms

The symptoms of athlete’s foot vary according to the type. In a toe web infection, you may notice that the webbed area between your toes appears pale white, moist, and softer than usual. These can then become itchy and cause a burning sensation. You’ll also notice a slightly undesirable odor in the area. When the condition develops, you’ll notice that the skin becomes scaly and eventually cracks and peels. You’ll also notice that the odor becomes worse and even unbearable.

In a moccasin type infection, you’ll notice minor irritations, dryness, and scaly skin on your feet. The skin eventually cracks and peels. It’s also likely that you’ll transfer the fungus to your hands so you’ll notice the same symptoms on your palms. Moccasin type infections are chronic, which means that the symptoms seem to go away and return on a periodic basis.

A vesicular infection is the least common of the three and is characterized by the sudden occurrence of blisters under the skin of the feet. The blisters will then spread to other areas of the body.

Who to see & types of treatments available

If you notice the symptoms of athlete’s foot, you can try home treatment with non-prescription medications. However, it would be better if you consult your doctor or a dermatologist so that the condition can be identified correctly, and the right treatment be prescribed.

It’s important to note that home treatment is not advisable for diabetics or for those who have a severe case of athlete’s foot, meaning sores and pus are already noticeable on the feet or anywhere else on the body.

Non-prescription medications for the fungus include miconazole (Micatin), terbinafine (Lamisil), clotrimazole (Lotrimin), and tolnaftate (Tinactin). These are available in creams, lotions, sprays, and ointment form. You’ll need to apply the medication daily until the symptoms disappear, which could take anywhere between a week to six weeks.

If, for some reason, you notice that the medications do not seem to be having any effect on the condition and that it is actually becoming worse, you’ll need to see your doctor or dermatologist.

Your doctor will need to know when you first noticed the symptoms, if you’ve spent time in a public facility, and if any of your family members have the same condition. You will also need to inform your doctor if you have any other medical conditions and the medications you’re currently taking.

The doctor will then take a skin sample by scraping your skin and viewing the pieces under a microscope or by sending it to a laboratory for further analysis. The laboratory will perform tests, such as a KOH (potassium hydroxide) test to confirm the presence of fungi and a fungal culture to identify the type of fungi.

Once the condition has been correctly identified, you’ll be treated with prescription medications, which are usually more effective than the types that you can purchase without a prescription. These include naftifine (Naftin) and butenafine (Mentax). You might also be prescribed with oral antifungals, such as itraconazole (Sporanox) or fluconazole (Diflucan).

After a successful treatment, it is still possible to be infected once again. To prevent this from happening, always wear sandals, slippers, or flip-flops in public swimming pools, locker rooms, and showers. If you’re indoors, instead of walking barefoot wear socks, especially if it’s in a public area or if you have visitors at home. Avoid wearing shoes that are too tight and do not allow your feet to breathe. Wear shoes that are the right size or alternate them with sandals. Wear socks to absorb the sweat, and use anti-fungal foot powder or talcum to fight the bacteria should you become contaminated. Additionally, it’s best if you wash and dry your shoes on a regular basis to prevent the growth of the fungus.

References:

  • Elewski BE, Hughey LC, Sobera JO, Hay R. Fungal diseases. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV, eds. Dermatology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 77.
  • Habif TP. Clinical Dermatology: A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Mosby; 2009:chap 13
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