Health / Expert Advice

Everything You Need to Know About Athlete’s Foot

How to recognize if you’re developing an itchy fungus on your feet.

Athlete’s foot is often misunderstood. The term athlete’s foot is actually a little bit of a misnomer, according to Area Medical Director of MedExpress Urgent Care Nancie Fitch. “You don’t actually need to be an athlete (or a gym regular) to get athlete’s foot.” In fact, putting on your bedtime socks after a shower too quickly can cause this germy taboo. With fungus thriving in environments all around us, athlete’s foot is more common than we may think. Luckily, there are several methods to avoid athlete’s foot from developing. Plus, there are some easy ways to detect the strains of fungus and cure it once developed.

We spoke to medical podiatrists and dermatologists to review the basics behind the complexities of athlete’s foot.

What exactly is athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot, or Tinea Pedis, is a rather common fungal infection that usually appears on our feet and between our toes. “Typically, athlete’s foot is caused by a group of fungi that flourish in warm, moist environments and feed on a protein called keratin that’s found in the skin. It makes sense, then, that the feet are the perfect place for fungi that cause athlete’s foot to thrive,” says Fitch. So, what kind of fungus causes athlete’s foot? Technically there’s fungus everywhere and on everything. Aren’t the mushrooms we eat in our salads a fungus? Or the yeast to bake our bread? The answer is yes. But, just like there is good and bad bacteria, there is good and bad fungus.

According to Board-Certified Dermatologist Donna Hart, “There are many different fungal species that can infect the foot and the organisms living on the top layer of your skin called the stratum corneum. The most common species (of infecting fungus) are Trichophyton rubrum, Trichophyton mentagrophytes, and Epidermophyton floccosum.”

What are the symptoms of athlete’s foot?

According to Podiatric Surgeon Dana Canuso, “Once fungus attaches to feet, it starts off as a small patch of dry skin around the toes, toenails, or heels. [It] eventually colonizes into a full-blown fungal infection.” These developments may be what causes those with athlete’s foot to scratch, itch, or develop inflammation. On the other hand, Canuso explains that “most people with athlete’s foot don’t even know they have it. They think that they just have a small amount of dry skin or cracked heels when actually it is the beginning of a fungus.” This can be dangerous, as these individuals are likely to spread the fungus to others.

Many think simply using damp, closed-toe footwear (like socks and shoes) causes athlete’s foot. However, this fungus can also spread from exposure of bare skin to floors. This is particularly common in communal spaces such as showers, bathrooms, and locker rooms, that people walk with bare feet. Plus it can spread from towels, clothes, and shoes that have already been contaminated.

How do I get rid of athlete’s foot?

“Active athlete’s foot is typically treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams, gels, or sprays,” says Daniel P. Friedmann, board-certified dermatologist. Most of the time, athlete’s foot can go away with the use of over the counter medicine or remedies. On occasion, when the infection isn’t going away with the use of topical ointments, Friedmann suggests visiting the doctor for more severe cases of athlete’s foot. They may require rub-on or oral medications to treat the disease.

For those who wish to find a more holistic or natural cure for athlete’s foot, Canuso recommends using remedies like tea tree essential oil to help kill the fungus. Although, if the oil doesn’t seem to be curing the athlete’s foot, still see a medical professional who may recommend prescriptions.

How do I avoid athlete’s foot?

“Prevention is the best remedy,” says Friedmann. “This includes keeping foot skin, socks, and the inside of shoes dry. And avoid the use of tight-fitting shoes that can promote foot sweating.” In addition, Friedmann suggests limiting the exposure of bare foot skin to floors in public areas or using shared towels, clothes, or shoes. In common damp areas (like showers), remember to wear proper footwear. This will not only prevent athlete’s foot but other bacteria and viral infections like plantar warts. Additionally, “if you have any cuts on your skin, make sure to keep them covered with a bandage for barrier protection.”

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