Athlete’s foot is a common fungal infection that affects the feet. The infection usually occurs on the skin of the feet and between the toes, but can also spread to the toenails and hands. It usually causes itching, cracked and dry skin, and sometimes blisters and sores.
Athlete’s foot is caused by a group of fungi called dermatophytes. These fungi thrive in warm and moist conditions. They feed on keratin, a protein found in nails, skin and hair.
The condition is contagious and can be passed from one person to another through skin particles. It can spread through contact with an infected person or from contact with contaminated surfaces, such as towels, floors and shoes. Once the infected skin comes into contact with broken skin it can quickly and easily transfer.
Who gets athlete's foot?
Athlete’s foot (as the name suggests) is typically experienced by people who take part in sports, especially sports that cause sweating (like running) or involve bare feet (like swimming and judo). This is because their feet often sweat in trainers and create the perfect environment for the fungi to thrive.
It’s also common in people who work in jobs where they come into contact with water and also people who work in industrial settings.
The highly contagious nature of athlete’s foot means that it affects a large number of people. It often spreads in the family home and in primary schools where children participate in PE lessons in bare feet.
Approximately 15% of the UK population suffers with athlete’s foot, with the highest rates seen in men over the age of 16.
How common is athlete's foot?
Over 70% of people will have athlete’s foot at least once in their lives. It usually occurs between the toes but can also infect the hands. Sometimes it can spread to the sole of the foot where it causes dry and cracked skin.
Both children and adults can get athlete’s foot, although it’s more common in men and older people and those who participate in sports or work in damp conditions.
Swimming pool users and people who work in industrial settings are the most likely to get athlete’s foot.
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What causes athlete's foot?
Athlete’s foot is caused by a fungus called dermatophytes. This type of fungi thrives in warm and moist conditions (like a sweaty sock or trainer). The fungi enters the body through cracks and splits in the skin.
Once the fungus is in the skin it continues to thrive in the warm and moist conditions and spreads around the foot.
Athlete’s foot spreads from one person to another when skin flakes are transferred from an infected foot. This typically occurs in communal showers or in changing rooms where people walk around with bare feet after exercising. It can also happen when people share trainers or other sporting equipment carrying infected skin flakes. Sharing towels is a common way to spread the infection.
It can recur if socks and shoes are not washed or discarded following infection.
What are the symptoms of athlete's foot?
The symptoms of athlete’s foot are usually seen between the toes, but can appear on the sole of the foot, in toenails and on hands.
Typical symptoms include:
itching and stinging between the toes (often between the little toe and the one next to it)
cracking and peeling skin
blisters (which are often itchy)
dry skin on the soles of the feet or between the toes
raw skin on the feet
fragile toenails that crumble or pull away from the nail bed
hard white skin between the toes and on the sole and balls of the feet
Can athlete's foot lead to other problems?
Athlete’s foot is very common and is often not serious, but left untreated it can sometimes lead to nail infections that are tricky to treat.
In very rare cases, the infection can spread to the lymph nodes. This can lead to an infection in the vessels of the lymph nodes called lymphangitis.
If you don’t treat your athlete's foot, there’s also a chance that the skin may crack, leading to bacterial skin infection.
If you have diabetes, you should be vigilant when it comes to athlete’s foot because you’re at a greater risk of developing it than the general population, due to the unique composition of your sweat.
What medications are there for athlete's foot?
There are a range of treatments available for athlete’s foot. These usually take the form of creams or ointments that are applied directly to the fungal infection. There are also gels and sprays available.
Most treatments are available without a prescription. Popular treatments include creams that contain antifungal medications like clotrimazole or ketoconazole.
In severe cases, a clinician may prescribe an oral treatment that contains griseofulvin or itraconazole.
Hydrocortisone cream or ointment can help to reduce swelling and pain caused by athlete’s foot, but doesn’t attack the fungi that cause it.
Is there a ‘best’ treatment for athlete's foot?
There is no ‘best’ treatment for athlete’s foot because the course of treatment needed varies from person to person depending on the location and severity of the infection. Our clinical team can advise you on the right medication options for you based on your health background and the extent of your infection.
Does athlete's foot always need treatment?
In some cases, athlete’s foot may clear up without treatment.
Due to the highly contagious nature of athlete’s foot, it’s advisable to seek treatment as soon as symptoms occur. This prevents the spread of the infection and reduces the risk of passing it on to someone else.
Left untreated, athlete’s foot could lead to more serious infections that require more intensive treatment.
FAQ: Athlete's foot
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How is athlete's foot diagnosed?
Athlete’s foot is diagnosed by looking at the skin and talking about the symptoms being experienced.
Usually, a person is able to recognise the symptoms of athlete’s foot, but checking them with a clinician or a pharmacist prescriber can help to ensure that you get the correct treatment.
In severe cases, or where over-the-counter treatments have failed, it may be better to consult a clinician and start a prescription treatment. A clinician may take a scraping of skin from the infected area to help check that the infection is athlete’s foot, and not something else.
How can you prevent athlete’s foot?
Athlete’s foot is highly contagious, and over 70% of people will get it during their lifetime. But there are measures you can follow to reduce your chances of getting it.
Ways to prevent athlete’s foot include:
drying your feet thoroughly after exercise
changing your socks regularly (especially after exercise)
wearing ventilated footwear
avoiding walking in public areas in bare feet (changing rooms and showers often contain infected skin flakes)
not sharing towels or shoes with other people
removing socks and shoes once exercise is finished
washing your feet at least twice a day
changing your bedding regularly.
If athlete’s foot keeps recurring for you, you could try adding an antifungal treatment when washing your bed sheets, or buying socks which are designed to prevent the infection from occurring.
Can you get side effects from athlete's foot treatment?
All medication comes with the possibility of side effects and you should always read the package information leaflet that comes with your treatment before you use it.
Some treatments, such as creams containing clotrimazole, can cause redness, burning and itching on the skin around the infection. This is usually short-lived and manageable, but you should send our clinician a message if the pain is severe.
Does athlete's foot treatment always work?
Treatments for athlete’s foot are usually very effective, but the time it takes for them to work can differ from person to person and depends on the severity of your infection.
Some treatments can produce results within a couple of weeks. It’s advised that you continue to use creams and ointments for one week after the visible symptoms of athlete’s foot have disappeared to ensure that the infection has been treated.
In severe cases, it can take months for treatment to prove successful. There’s also the chance of recurrence if good foot hygiene isn’t maintained following infection.
Why should I buy athlete's foot treatment online with Treated?
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Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please talk to a doctor.
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