Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that usually develops on the bottoms of the feet or between and around the toes, where the skin is generally warm and damp. The infection develops when tiny fungal bodies enter the skin through very small openings like blisters, cuts or scrapes. Once under the skin, the fungi begin multiplying rapidly, causing symptoms like itching, burning, redness and peeling or flaking skin. Athlete’s foot is very contagious, and it easily spreads through contact with surfaces where the fungus is most commonly found, like the floors of gym locker rooms or public showers, or on the damp decking surrounding pools and hot tubs. Walking barefoot in these areas significantly increases your chances of “picking up” the fungus and developing an infection. Wearing shoes of a person who has athlete’s foot is another easy way to become infected. While athlete’s foot can occur in anyone, it’s more likely to occur in people with compromised immune systems or circulatory problems, including people with diabetes. Having a personal or family history of fungal infections also increases the risk of developing athlete’s foot.
Most people with athlete’s foot infections can be treated with prescription-strength topical medications designed to penetrate to the deeper layers of tissue where the fungi are rooted. In some cases, oral medications may be prescribed when topical medications aren’t effective in clearing the infection. Athlete’s foot almost always can be diagnosed with an office evaluation, but in a few cases where symptoms may be more atypical, a small skin scraping or biopsy may be taken to rule out other causes. A biopsy may also be performed when treatment is ineffective to pinpoint the fungus causing the infection so it can be targeted more effectively. While there are plenty of over-the-counter medicines that claim to treat athlete’s foot, non-prescription products aren’t strong enough to reach the deep tissue layers, which means the fungus can continue to thrive, spreading the infection to other areas of the feet.
The best way to prevent athlete’s foot is to avoid situations known to spread the infection. Never share shoes with another person, and wear sandals or “swim shoes” in locker rooms, showers and around public swimming pools. Be sure to wash feet regularly and dry them thoroughly before putting on shoes and socks. And of course, see the doctor at the first sign of infection.