It feels like something out of a scary movie. Your toes begin to itch. You feel something burning in your shoes. You scratch, but it doesn't help. Soon, you notice blisters. The skin between your toes starts to crack. You find that the soles of your feet are starting to peel. You apply lotion, but nothing seems to help. You start to think your toenails are changing color, and you eventually suspect that the itchy, burning feeling is spreading to other parts of your body. What is happening to you? Are you being taken over by an alien life form?
The answer is likely much simpler. You have athlete's foot, known to your doctor as Tinea pedis. And though it might feel like you're being attacked by an invader from outer space, what you're experiencing is actually a very common infection that can be caused by a number of persistent -- though most definitely earthbound -- critters.
Athlete's foot is one of a number of related skin conditions with similar names: Tinea corporis, Tinea capitis (scalp ringworm) and Tinea cruris (jock itch). Of these conditions, athlete's foot has perhaps the least frightening name. But it can be just as uncomfortable as its icky-sounding cousins and just as difficult to get rid of [source: Mayo Clinic].
Athlete's foot, in addition to the other Tinea conditions, is caused by fungi. That's why some people more casually call the condition "foot fungus." As with any fungus, the one that results in athlete's foot likes a warm, humid environment. Think about how quickly a fresh loaf of bread gets moldy in the heat and humidity of summer. For many people, the sole of the foot and the spaces between the toes are both warm and moist. It's the perfect condition for sprouting a batch of fungus.
If you've got a fungus you need to foil, continue reading to learn what causes this irritating invasion and how you can defeat your athlete's foot.
Causes of Athlete's Foot
You might be surprised to learn there isn't just one kind of athlete's foot. That's because athlete's foot is caused by several different kinds of fungi known as dermatophytes. The dermatophytes begin to grow on your skin, infecting the epidermis and causing the deeper layer of skin to overproduce cells. As the cells build up, you begin to see the scaly appearance that is typical in athlete's foot [source: Mayo Clinic].
Athlete's foot is most often found on the sole of the foot and in between the toes [source: WebMD]. But because athlete's foot is caused by different types of fungi, and because no two feet are alike, you can see variants in its appearance, location and treatability.
Before you can get athlete's foot, you have to come into contact with the fungi in the first place. You might encounter fungi when you have direct contact with another person or with an object or surface that an infected person has touched. That means that floors, bath mats, bathtubs, shoes -- anything a person is likely to touch with bare feet -- might be contaminated. The most common places for you to pick up an athlete's foot fungus are locations where lots of people walk around barefoot, such as public pools, public bathrooms and locker rooms [source: Mayo Clinic].
Once you've come into contact with the fungus, it needs a place to grow. That means a moist, warm place such as a sweaty foot or toes with no wiggle room.
If the idea of foot fungi makes you shudder, don't despair. Read on to learn what you can do to prevent athlete's foot.
Preventing Athlete's Foot
The most obvious way to prevent athlete's foot is also the most effective: Don't come into contact with it in the first place [source: Family Doctor, TeensHealth]. Take preventive measures to avoid exposing yourself to the fungus. Wear plastic sandals when you visit a locker room, public shower or public pool. Parents, buy your graduating senior a couple of pairs of cheap flip-flops before they go off to the dorms. Athletes, it's no coincidence that this is called athlete's foot -- many people who play sports tend to spend a lot of time with damp, sweaty feet and walking around in locker rooms and public showers.
Any kind of fungus will feel right at home in a warm, humid, dark place, but there are a few other things you can do to make your skin less a less attractive home to fungi.
- Keep your feet clean and dry.
- Change your socks during the day if they feel damp.
- Take your shoes off when you get home, and let your feet feel the fresh air.
- Try alternating pairs of shoes so that each one has a full 24 hours to dry, especially if you tend to have sweaty feet.
- Avoid shoes that crowd your toes. If you can't wiggle the piggies, you're creating a cozy fungus home between your toes.
To increase airflow around your feet, choose shoes made of natural materials and avoid plastic or vinyl shoes. Socks made of cotton or special materials that remove moisture from the surface of the skin can also help your feet stay dry [source: University of Michigan Health System].
If you've had athlete's foot before and are trying to avoid a recurrence, use an antifungal powder on your feet each day. These powders keep the feet dry and inhibit the growth of fungus on your feet [sources: Mayo Clinic, WebMD].
Athlete's Foot Treatments
If precautionary steps don't work, there are several ways you can treat a mild case of athlete's foot at home with over-the-counter antifungal medicines. These include topical products containing the active ingredients clotrimazole, miconazole, terbinafine or tolnaftate [sources: BlueCross BlueShield, Mayo Clinic]. They might be available as sprays, ointments, powders or creams. These products are usually found at local drugstores, and if you use them as directed, chances are that your athlete's foot will be a thing of the past. In general, you will need to apply the product once or a few times a day for a couple of weeks while being careful to keep your feet clean and dry.
If your athlete's foot persists after treatment, you might need to see your doctor. He or she might prescribe a topical medicine that's similar to an over-the-counter medicine, but stronger. These include the ingredients naftifine, butenafine, miconazole and clotrimazole [source: WebMD]. If you try these and still have some signs of athlete's foot, your doctor may give you an oral medication such as itraconazole, fluconazole or terbinafine [source: Mayo Clinic]. As these drugs can have some negative side effects, they are usually reserved for those with severe cases that do not respond to other treatments.
No matter what treatment you use, taking preventive measures can help you avoid spreading the fungus to others in your home, at your gym, on your sports team or anywhere else until the condition has healed.
For more information on athlete's foot and how to treat it, follow the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- American Podiatric Medical Association. "Athlete's Foot." (Accessed 08/19/2009)http://www.apma.org/topics/athfoot.htm
- Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. "Athlete's Foot." (Accessed 08/19/2009)http://www.bcbsnc.com/content/services/formulary/over-counter-medications/adult-conditions/athletes-foot.htm
- CIGNA. "Athlete's Foot." (Accessed 08/19/2009)http://www.cigna.com/healthinfo/hw28392.html
- FamilyDoctor.org. "Tinea Infections: Athlete's Foot, Jock Itch and Ringworm." March 2009. (Accessed 08/19/2009)http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/infections/common/fungal/316.printerview.html
- Mayo Clinic. "Athlete's Foot." Nov. 22, 2008. (Accessed 08/19/2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/athletes-foot/DS00317
- TeensHealth. "Athlete's Foot." July 2007. (Accessed 08/19/2009)http://kidshealth.org/teen/infections/skin_rashes/athletes_foot.html#
- University of Michigan Health System. "Athlete's Foot." Aug. 11, 2008. (Accessed 08/19/2009)http://www.med.umich.edu/1libr/sma/sma_athletes_crs.htm
- WebMD. "Athlete's Foot." July 2, 2008. (Accessed 08/19/2009)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/athletes-foot-topic-overview