No, you don’t have to play sports to fall victim to this fungal infection.
You’ve heard the horror stories and warnings before: Always wear flip flops in public showers (at pools or gyms, or in college dorms), unless you want to deal with a particularly nasty skin condition: athlete’s foot.
While it’s fair to say that athletes are more affected than others by the condition—hence the name—the truth is anyone, regardless of age or activity level, can fall victim to athlete’s foot.
So what exactly is this menace to the skin on your feet? Here, experts—specifically dermatologists and podiatrists—break down what causes athlete’s foot, as well as the symptoms you might experience, and how to treat the issue.
What is athlete’s foot?
Athlete’s foot—technically known as tinea pedis—is an infection of the skin and feet, which can be caused by a variety of different fungi, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Though the infection can technically affect any part of the foot, it most commonly shows up in between the toes, on the sides of the foot, or on the bottom of the foot, Rajani Katta, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Houston, Texas, tells Health.
There’s a good reason why it’s called athlete’s foot, too: “The fungus that causes athlete’s foot likes to grow in warm, moist places, so it’s often associated with athletes, who sometimes develop it when their feet stay in damp, sweaty socks,” says Dr. Katta. “You can also pick u p the fungal organisms from walking barefoot in [public spaces like locker rooms], which is another reason why it’s been associated with athletes, though it’s important to note that anyone can get it.”
What are the symptoms of athlete’s foot?
So, athlete’s foot is can actually be asymptomatic most of the time, Patricia Farris, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Sanova Dermatology in Metairie, Louisiana, tells Health. “When an infection is on the bottom of the feet, it causes the skin to peel and flake, which you may mistake for dry skin,” she says.
When symptoms do present, however, one of the most common signs are red, itchy, raw areas between the toes, says Dr. Katta—that’s usually where symptoms show up first. You can also experience a flaking rash along the sides of the foot, or blisters along the instep (the inner arch of the foot), which can be itchy and painful. In severe cases, you may also experience cracking of the skin, David Pytowski, DPM, a podiatrist based in Austin, Texas, tells Health.
How is athlete’s foot treated—and how long does it take to clear up?
Usually, athlete’s foot can be treated with over-the-counter remedies such as powders, lotions, sprays, and ointments, all of which are generally effective for clearing up infections, says Dr. Pytowski.
In some more severe cases, however, stronger options may be necessary. “Many of the antifungal medications that are sold over the counter can be helpful, although in some cases a stronger prescription medication may be needed,” says Dr. Katta. “In rare cases, an [oral] antifungal medication may be used.”
One thing to note: Athlete’s foot can mimic other infections that are caused by bacteria such as eczema or dermatitis, so it’s best to check with a doctor before initiating any medication-based treatments, says Dr. Pytowski.
While the skin condition usually clears up with treatment, there are a few situations that require a follow up with a doctor. If you have diabetes, for example, sometimes these fungal infections can be more persistent and harder to treat. In rare cases, athlete’s foot can lead to small cracks in the skin, which can then allow bacteria to enter and trigger a more serious bacterial skin infection, which can spread to other parts of your body such as the groin, says Dr. Pytowski.
Another less common but still possible complication: toenail fungus. If you have a significant untreated infection of the skin and between the toes, your toenails will likely become infected, too, says Dr. Farris. That could make your athlete’s foot—and now, toenail fungus—even harder to treat. “Toenail fungus almost always has to be treated with oral antifungal medications and is often difficult to get rid of,” she says.
How can you prevent athlete’s foot?
People who’ve had athlete’s foot once are sometimes more susceptible to developing it again, says Dr. Katta. But following appropriate treatment recommendations can help prevent it from occurring again.
“If you’re exercising, make sure you change out of damp sweaty socks, and if you’re taking a shower at the gym or you’re at the locker room, try to wear shower shoes,” she says. “You should also try to avoid letting your feet stay damp by making sure you dry your feet carefully after you shower.”
Oftentimes, people who experience sweaty feet are also prone to frequent recurrences of athlete’s foot, Dr. Farris adds.
“Don’t wear occlusive footwear like tennis shoes and instead choose more open breathable shoes,” she says. “Throw out old shoes that might be infected and use an antifungal powder on your shoes to prevent reinfecting yourself.”
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