If you have ever had the itching, burning, cracking feeling between your toes – and don’t have the Superbowl trophies to show for it – you may have some experience with athlete’s foot. For the Latin scholars among you, this delightful condition is also know as tinea pedis, which roughly translates to “ouch, my feet really hurt” for those of us more schooled in pig Latin. The reason it is more commonly referred to as athlete’s foot is because athletes tend to have feet that are more prone to moist, sweaty situations inside sneakers. They also tend to walk barefoot through common showers where fungus likes to take a holiday. Rest assured, though, you don’t need to have an athletic bone in your body for this fungus to find you and make every step a misery.
There’s a Fungus Among Us . . . (groan)
Athlete’s foot is actually caused by a fungus growing in the warm, moist places on your feet. It is spread through contact by walking on a surface or using the same equipment of someone who already has an infection. The fungus is related to jock itch, so it is like having that on your foot. Nice. This fungus actually lives on the skin normally, but has a free for all party when it encounters nice, tight shoes and sweaty socks. It loves those kind of environments and will thrive in them.
So, how do you know you have athlete’s foot? The first and most common sign is itching and stinging between your toes, but the soles of your feet can burn and itch, too. This is called a “moccasin” presentation. The itchy spots can turn into blisters which burst and cause ulcers. This leads to pain that makes walking very difficult. Your skin can dry out, too, and crack open, causing more open sores. Toenails will turn thick and crumble away from the nail bed. These sores can become infected, so if you see redness, swelling, or drainage, you should see your doctor. See your doctor immediately if you are a diabetic and suspect you have athlete’s foot because a sore could cause further problems.
Just Make the Itch Go Away
You’ve seen the commercials for athlete’s foot preparations. They are available over the counter to help rid you of this fungus before it becomes a bigger deal than it needs to be. These types of medications will usually be topical – a lotion, spray, or cream. The most common type is the Lotrimin (butenafine and clotrimazole) family of products. If you use them early and often, you should get some relief and avoid the open sores and infections that complicated athlete’s foot can cause.
If you are not so lucky and the athlete’s foot attacks you overnight, you may need to see a doctor for some prescription medications. Your doctor can give you a stronger version of clotrimazole or a stronger than over the counter version of miconazole, another anti-fungal. However, at this point, you may need to take a medication by mouth to help clear up the infection. The most common anti-fungals prescribed are fluconazole (Diflucan) and terbinafine (Lamisil), but you may need an additional antibiotic if you have a secondary infection in your foot. At that point, just about any antibiotic could be on the table.
How to Be Athletic Without the Athlete’s Foot
The best way to treat athlete’s foot is to not get it at all. Dry feet are the best preventative for this type of fungus. Expose it to air, and it shrivels up and dies. Keep your feet as dry and possible and go barefoot when you are at home. However, avoid going barefoot at all costs in public areas, such as showers, dressing rooms, locker rooms, or gyms. These places are breeding grounds for sweaty foot fungus, and your foot is a magnet for any spore that is laying on the ground. When you choose socks, go with natural materials, such as cotton, that breathe well and let your feet get air. You don’t want to wear too much polyester if you are running a marathon. You’re just asking for trouble, buddy. Also get shoes that have good ventilation to them and fit well. If they pinch around the toes, opt to get wide width or the next half size bigger. If athlete’s foot is a big problem for you, carry extra shoes and socks so that you can change them twice per day.
You can also invest in a foot powder to absorb any moisture that builds up inside your shoe. Foot powders even come with anti-fungal properties built-in, so it does double the work. Keeping your feet clean is another great strategy for preventing the spread of athlete’s foot. Clean between your toes and make sure you dry between them thoroughly after each shower. Take time to pamper your feet, and you won’t be hobbling around, wishing you could scratch the skin off your toes.
Mayo Clinic; Athlete's Foot; November 2010 http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/athletes-foot/DS00317 WebMD; Athlete's Foot – Topic Overview; June 2010 http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/athletes-foot-topic-overview