Athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis, is a fungal infection—tiny plant-like “germs”—that can grow and multiply on human skin, especially the feet. It grows best in a dark, moist and warm environment. A foot inside a shoe is the perfect place for the fungus! The same fungus may also cause “jock itch” in the groin.
Athlete’s foot is contagious and may be caught by walking barefoot in the locker room. However, it is not known exactly who is at risk for getting athlete’s foot. Sweaty feet, tight shoes or socks, not drying one’s feet well after swimming, bathing or exercising all contribute to the development of athlete’s foot.
Athlete’s foot may not always have the same appearance. In some people, the skin between the toes (especially the last two toes) peels, cracks and scales. There may be redness, scaling and even dryness on the soles and along the sides of the feet. Athletes foot may also produce itching and burning of the feet. A few individuals may develop a single small patch of intensely itchy blisters. These skin changes can also be caused by other medical conditions like contact dermatitis and psoriasis. Fungal infections of the toenails can also occur and be difficult to treat. Toenail infections cause scaling, crumbling, thickening and even partial loss of the nails. These changes can also result from other conditions such as psoriasis, injury and aging.
Because all rashes on the feet are not athlete’s foot, using over-the-counter antifungal preparations on a rash that is not athlete’s foot may cause your condition to worsen. You should see a dermatologist if over-the-counter medications do not clear the condition or if it becomes worse. Your dermatologist can correctly diagnose the condition and prescribe an effective medication. Untreated, athlete’s foot can result in blisters and cracks that may lead to secondary bacterial infections.
Your dermatologist will examine your feet thoroughly. This examination may include a scraping of the scaly area from the skin on your feet. The skin scales are then examined under a microscope to look for the tiny fungi or placed in a test tube to look for growth of the fungus.
Once the fungus is diagnosed, treatment can begin immediately. For simple cases, antifungal creams are effective and can relieve symptoms such as burning and itching fairly quickly. In more severe cases, or if your infection is resistant to usual treatment, antifungal pills may be prescribed. Toenail infections may be difficult to treat and require several months of an oral antifungal medicine. It’s important to continue the use of your prescribed antifungal creams and to take all the oral medications properly. While your skin may look better, the infection can remain active for some time and could worsen again if you stop your treatment before completion.