What is athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot (tinea pedis) is one of many skin diseases caused by overgrowth of certain fungi, called dermatophytes. Dermatophytes can live on human skin and either cause a rash or not. Certain dermatophytes only grow on human skin; others can also live on animal skin or in the soil. When dermatophytes overgrow on feet, they can cause rashes variably categorized as athlete's foot. Sometimes this causes only asymptomatic scaling or maceration between the toes; other times it causes itchy blisters and expanding red scaly bumps. Rarely it can spread to other parts of the body, such as the groin (tinea cruris, commonly known as jock itch), or it can trigger separate rashes on other parts of the body (Id reaction). While athlete's foot is not usually dangerous, it can be treated if bothersome.

What are the treatments for athlete's foot?

Because there are many different fungi that can cause athlete's foot, and antimicrobial resistance can occur, no one antifungal agent is universally effective, and a trial and error approach has to be followed. However, there are tricks to increase the chance that any given treatment works.

  • Know that dermatophytes love warm, moist places, so when trying to treat athlete's foot, it is generally advisable to go barefoot at home or minimize wearing tight-fitting and sweaty shoes. Also, specifically drying the crevices between the toes can rid the fungi of their favorite hiding spot!
  • Topical creams should be applied to the whole foot (both feet) and not just obviously infected areas. Remember that fungi often colonize normal-appearing skin, which can then easily spread back into treated areas after an otherwise good medication is stopped.
  • These fungi can often live off of human skin for up to 24 hours, and so socks and shoes are a common source of reinfection. Successful treatment of athlete's foot is usually paired with specific treatment of socks (washed daily after use) and shoes (sprayed with an antifungal spray after use and set aside for at least 24 hours before worn again).
  • After clearance of the infection (skin looks normal again), it is still common for athlete's foot to recur. This is much less likely in people who transition to use of an antifungal powder in their socks a few times weekly.
  • In severe or treatment resistant cases, antifungal pills can be used to treat athlete's foot.

Individual results may vary.

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