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Athlete's Foot

Athlete's Foot (tinea pedis) is a fungal skin infection that affects the feet, toes and sometimes hands. It is commonly seen in athletes, however, other factors other than exercise can cause symptoms. Whilst it is not deemed serious, it is a contagious infection that can be treated with creams and ointments.


Medically reviewed by Dr. Plauto Filho Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 28-04-2024

What is athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot is a contagious fungal infection.

The medical term is tinea pedis, although it is more commonly known as athlete's foot due to it being frequently observed in sportsmen and women. This is a result of frequenting places where the fungi causing this condition live (gyms, locker rooms, communal showers, etc.).

The condition affects approximately 15% of the population and is most common in young men. However, everyone is susceptible to athlete's foot, so we should all exercise good foot hygiene.

The infection usually presents as a rash on the foot and is closely linked to other fungal infections, such as ringworm and jock itch.

It may infect any part of the foot, but most often grows between the toes or on the soles of the feet.

The affected area is generally red, itchy, scaly, cracked or blistered, but this does depend on the type of infection and the individual reaction to it.

What causes athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot is caused by various fungi growing and multiplying on the skin. These usually belong to a fungal group called dermatophytes, but in rare cases can be caused by non-dermatophytes, such as yeast.

How do you get athlete's foot?

You can catch athlete's foot either through direct contact with an infected person or by touching surfaces already contaminated.

The fungi that cause the infection thrive in warm, dark, moist places; that's why damp socks and shoes are a common cause of this condition.

You are more likely to get athlete's foot if you:

  • Have bad foot hygiene - e.g. feet and toes that are regularly dirty and damp
  • Wear tightfitting shoes that make your feet hot and sweaty
  • Walk barefoot in communal areas where fungal infections spread easily (showers, gyms, swimming pools, and changing rooms)
  • Share socks, towels and shoes with others
  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Have other health conditions, such as diabetes

Scratching the infected skin and then touching other parts of your body can spread the infection. Therefore, it is very important to avoid scratching and clean your hands regularly.

How to treat athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot does not tend to improve on its own, even if you change your foot care routine.

There are many home remedies for athlete's foot, but the most effective way to treat the rash is with antifungal medicine from a pharmacy, as well as by improving your foot hygiene.

What treatments are available for athlete's foot

Antifungal medicines are available as creams, sprays or liquids. They stop the fungi causing your athlete's foot from multiplying.

It's best to apply treatment as soon as you experience any itching, as this will prevent the infection from spreading.

This is how most antifungal treatments should be used:

  • Wash and dry the area before using your chosen treatment
  • Apply the treatment directly to the affected skin and the surrounding area
  • Clean your hands after every treatment to avoid spreading the infection

Continue the treatment as instructed in the information leaflet that accompanies your medicine, even if the rash goes away. This will ensure that all the fungi have cleared.

Not all treatments are suitable for children, older people and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

If your rash is sore and itches, despite your antifungal treatment, try a mild steroid cream to help with discomfort. Only use this for a small amount of time and in conjunction with existing anti-fungal treatment.

How long does it take to heal athlete's foot?

Most anti-fungal treatments are similarly effective, although some work faster than others. Ask a pharmacist to recommend a medicine for you.

Topical (rub-on) cream treatments usually take around 4 weeks to clear the infection.

Talk to your GP after a week of treatment if your athlete's foot doesn't improve or is causing significant pain or discomfort.

Your doctor may test a small skin sample, or recommend stronger antifungal medicines, including tablets.

How do I prevent athlete's foot?

While some conditions like diabetes increase the risk of athlete's foot, healthy people can largely prevent an infection if favourable conditions for the spread of the fungi are avoided. This includes:

  • Good foot hygiene with regular cleaning and proper drying after washing feet.
  • Avoiding tight and non-breathable shoes.
  • Always wearing shoes in communal areas where fungal infections spread easily, e.g. showers, gyms, swimming pools or changing rooms.
  • Never sharing socks, towels or shoes with others.
  • Strengthening the immune system by controlling diabetes and any other chronic diseases. This can be achieved by eating healthy food and exercising regularly.

Additionally, to avoid affecting further areas of the body once an infection has taken hold, it is very important to avoid scratching the infected area and to clean your hands regularly.

Can athlete's foot go away on its own?

No. Without treating the infection, athlete's foot will worsen, resulting in itchier and more affected feet. Untreated athlete's foot can also lead to a more serious infection which might have worse health consequences.

What will happen if athlete's foot is left untreated?

While this is typically not a serious condition, you should treat it quickly to stop the infection spreading to other parts of your body or to other people.

Severe cases where the skin has been damaged by athlete's foot can result in a bacterial infection. This, in turn, can lead to cellulitis which causes the skin to become red, hot and swollen. This requires additional treatment.

If you have diabetes, you must visit your doctor as soon as you think you have athlete's foot. Also, look out for excessive redness, swelling, drainage or fever. These could be symptoms of a secondary bacterial infection which will need to be treated.

What does athlete's foot look like?

This contagious fungal infection typically affects the skin between the toes or on the soles of the feet.

The affected areas of skin can be:

  • Dry, red, scaly or flaky
  • Itchy
  • Sore
  • Covered in small blisters
  • White, soggy and cracked

The itching caused by athlete's foot is usually at its worst immediately after taking off your shoes and socks.

There are four kinds of athlete's foot infection, although all can be treated with antifungal medicines. They are:

  • Toe web infection - Also known as an inter-digital infection, this usually starts between your fourth and fifth toes. You may feel a burning sensation, and the skin might be red, peeling or scaly. The rash can smell and there may be accompanying discharge. In severe cases, the skin may have a greenish hue.
  • Moccasin infection - This is where the infection covers the sole of your foot. It may also spread up the side of your heel and up the side of your foot. At first, your foot may feel sore, dry or itchy, but after a while the skin will thicken, crack or peel. This infection often infiltrates your toenails, causing them to become thick and crumbly or fall out.
  • Vesicular infection - This form of athlete's foot involves several small, red blisters forming on the foot. If they burst, it could result in a bacterial infection which requires antibiotics. This type of infection is more common in the summer months.
  • Ulcerative infection - This is the least common form of athlete's foot and is when the foot develops sores or ulcers. These may ooze discharge and your skin may get inflamed, discoloured and painful. In this case, you will need antibiotics to prevent bacterial infection.

All forms of athlete's foot can spread around your foot and into your toenails, often pulling them away from the nail bed.

It can also spread to your hands and fingernails, especially if you scratch the affected area. In addition, it can be transmitted to other areas of the body; most commonly, your groin. If this occurs, contact your GP immediately.

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