Treating the Fungus Afoot

David Bialek, PharmD
Published Online: Thursday, November 1, 2001

I remember when my younger brother came home from the doctor with a huge smile on his face. This seemed somewhat ironic since he had been complaining that his feet itched and ached. What was heFast Facts so happy about? He was happy that he was an athlete! And by his definition, only athletes got athlete?s foot. For my brother, this was his coming of age, a way to follow in his older brother?s footsteps. Well, he?s much older now, and I can assure you much wiser. But what is athlete?s foot? How do we get it? And more important, how do we get rid of it?

What Is Athlete?s Foot?
Athlete?s foot is a common, contagious fungus infection of the skin, which usually occurs on the feet, especially the soles and skin between the toes. It usually affects adolescents and adults, but may occur in any age group.

Why Does the Fungus Usually Occur on the Feet?
The fungus most commonly attacks the feet because shoes create a warm, dark, and humid environment, which encourages fungus growth.

Why Is the Fungus Named Athlete?s Foot?
Well, the warmth and dampness of areas around swimming pools, showers, and locker rooms are great breeding grounds for fungi, and thus the infection became common among athletes who used these facilities frequently.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Athlete?s Foot?
Typical symptoms of athlete?s foot include:

  • Dry skin
  • Itching
  • Scaling or dead skin
  • Inflammation
  • Blisters

Blisters often lead to cracking of the skin. When blisters break, small raw areas of tissue are exposed, causing pain and swelling. Itching and burning may increase as the infection spreads.
These symptoms can be mild or severe. Progressed stages of fungal infection may involve the toenails, causing a thickened, yellowish appearance of the nail.

Where Did I Get a Fungal Infection?
Many cases of athlete?s foot can be traced to use of a public recreational facility, such as a spa, swimming pool, or locker room shower. The fungus, which grows in warm, moist environments, likes to live in the outer layers of your skin. However, for short periods of time, it can live in warm puddles on the tile floor, awaiting another foot to hop onto.

Is Athlete?s Foot Contagious?
Athlete?s foot is more contagious to the person with the fungus than others. However, the fungus may be transmitted to others. Those who scratch the infection and then touch themselves elsewhere can spread it to other parts of the body, notably the groin and underarms. The organisms causing athlete?s foot may persist for long periods. Consequently, the infection may be spread by contaminated bed sheets or clothing to other parts of the body or to other people. It is common to catch athlete?s foot from other people who have it by walking on floors that are moist or wet.

How Can I Get Rid of It?
The best treatment for athlete?s foot is prevention:

Wear sandals in the locker room.

Wear cotton socks, and change them often. If your shoes are wet or sweaty, dry them before lacing up again.

Wash your feet and dry them well. If you keep your feet dry, the fungi will have a hard time living on you. The application of a talc powder can help keep your feet dry over the course of the day.

If you are experiencing the symptoms mentioned earlier, then you are past the point of prevention. The initial treatment for a simple case of athlete?s foot is usually an over-the-counter (OTC) medication. There are a number of products available, including sprays, powders, and ointments or creams. These products are usually equally effective at killing the fungus, but they differ in the time it takes. Typically, these products are administered twice a day in order for treatment to be most effective. Ask the pharmacist to direct you to a medication for athlete?s foot, and be diligent about its application. 

Do I Need to See a Doctor?
If you can?t seem to win the battle using OTC products, then it?s probably time to visit your doctor. He can prescribe medications stronger than those available OTC. If the topical antifungal treatments are not sufficient to control the problem, then an oral antifungal (available only by prescription) is often the next step. There are quite a few antifungal medications on the market; your doctor will help you decide which is best for you.

Now That the Athlete?s Foot Is Gone, How Do I Keep It Away?
You can do much to prevent infection by practicing good foot hygiene. Daily washing of the feet with soap and water; drying carefully, especially between the toes; and changing shoes regularly to decrease moisture, help prevent the fungus from infecting the feet. Also helpful is daily use of a quality foot powder.

Other helpful tips for prevention include:

  • Wear sandals or shoes when walking on moist or wet floors
  • Don?t share shoes or personal care items such as towels
  • Wear socks made of absorbent materials such as cotton or wool
  • Choose footwear that allows for air circulation
  • Keep floors in shared facilities clean and dry
  • Keep your feet clean and dry (change socks more frequently if your feet tend to perspire).

Are There Any Other Issues I Should Be Concerned About?
Athlete?s foot is extremely common, and in almost all cases, there is no underlying problem that led to your contracting this infection. However, fungal infections can also  an early sign of more serious problems that result in a weakened immune system. This is especially true for individuals who are at risk for developing diabetes or contracting the HIV virus. If someone in your family has diabetes, or if you are at risk for HIV (high-risk sexual activity, needle sharing), then you should see your doctor to confirm that these are not potential underlying disorders.



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