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Just What Is Athlete’s Foot?
The most simple definition of athlete’s foot (scientific name tinea pedis) is that it is a rash on the foot that is caused by a fungal infection. The name comes from the fact that this is especially common among athletes and other people who have their feet surrounded by dirt, sweat, moisture, and grime in addition to going barefoot in potentially unsanitary areas (gyms, gym showers, etc.).
While many people end up afflicted with athlete’s foot at one point or another in their life, there are actually three different types of athlete’s foot, each one tending to afflict a different section of the foot. This is a fungal infection that is highly contagious, and thrives in places like gyms, locker rooms, and pools. Many people initially get infected in one of these areas, then the fungus grows as their feet are in dark and humid shoes that doesn’t allow for any air flow.
Even if you do not come into direct contact with an infected area, it is still possible to catch the fungus from someone else who has it. Technically it is even possible for a person to pass on the fungus that causes athlete’s foot without catching it themselves.
What Are The Symptoms Of Athlete’s Foot?
There are several symptoms that will immediately jump out to most people who become infected with athlete’s foot. Some people will only experience one or two of these symptoms while other people will experience all of them. There are several different types of athlete’s foot infections, which is why the experience each person has can vary from one case to the next.
However, most people will experience a lot of itching, burning, and maybe even stinging in and between their toes and on other parts of their foot, as well. The skin in the area that is itching or burning the most will eventually crack and peel, turning flaky in many instances. At this stage athlete’s foot becomes very easy to see and prepare to treat.
A full list of potential symptoms includes:
- Itchy blisters on the feet
- Cracking & peeling skin
- Extra dry skin on the soles of the feet
- Extra dry skin on the sides of the feet
- Discolored toe nails
- Weak and crumbly toe nails
- Small holes or “bleeding” from severe skin cracking
While these symptoms can appear anywhere on your foot, they are going to be especially prevalent in between the toes and on the soles of the feet.
What Types Of Athlete’s Foot Infections Are There?
While athlete’s foot tends to be more of an umbrella term for three very similar infections that more or less afflict someone in the same way, but there are actually three separate “types” of athlete’s foot infections. They will all be similar in many ways, but it is worth knowing about the differences.
The “Toe Web Infection,” for example, is probably the most common and one that people will almost always think about when it comes to athlete’s foot. This infection will obviously be found in between the toes, usually starting between the fourth and fifth toes right where there is that little bit of webbing. The skin here tends to become extremely dry, peeling at first and eventually cracking. Skin can even breakdown sometimes to the point where blood is showing through the cracks.
The “Moccasin Style Infection” starts off with just a little bit of soreness. There might not be any other signs in the beginning, but that soreness in the foot is just one sign of what’s to come. This is followed up with the skin on the bottom of the heel becoming thick, hard, and even cracking. In really bad cases of this spreading, it can even lead to toenail damage or toenails falling out. If this situation develops, you will need to see a doctor as the toenail area requires a different kind of treatment compared to the rest of the foot.
Finally, there are “Vesicular Athlete Foot Infections.” This specific type of athlete’s foot has slightly more painful symptoms most of the time. This often begins with seeing the sudden arrival of many blisters filled with fluid. These can show up on any part of the foot, although they often most inconveniently end up appearing on the bottom of the foot. This makes it easy to pop them and also end up having to deal with a bacteria based infection as a result.
What Causes Athlete’s Foot?
Athlete’s foot is caused by having your feet afflicted with the tinea fungus. This means the cause comes from catching tinea off someone or something and having it grow from there. Catching this fungus is actually pretty easy. It can come from the skin of your feet touching any contaminated surface or through direct contact with someone who is infected. This fungus tends to thrive in warm and moist environments, which is why showers, locker rooms, and swimming pools are absolute breeding grounds for athlete’s foot.
In addition to that, wearing thick shoes or boots with socks once the fungus connects to your foot helps explain why it spreads and thrives so easily.
You should also realize that contaminated surfaces doesn’t just refer to things like shower floors. Someone who has athlete’s foot can leave some of that fungus on socks, shoes, non wet floors, and even towels. Keeping an outbreak of athlete’s foot under control is a difficult proposition, but it is something that is definitely worth keeping in mind to try to eliminate your exposure.
How Is Athlete’s Foot Diagnosed?
Generally speaking a doctor is not needed to give a diagnosis on athlete’s foot. Seeing many of these symptoms is often enough to get some non-prescription over the counter treatments to help out with the problem. However, for people who want to be absolutely sure, a trained doctor will often be able to tell you have athlete’s foot simply by looking at your feet. It doesn’t take much more than a preliminary test to tell most of the time, although you will most likely have questions about any past fungal infections or instances of having athlete’s foot.
While usually not serious, any diabetic who contracts athlete’s foot needs to talk to a doctor as this combination can lead to complications and certain situations where more serious potential side effects may happen.
While at the doctor, if anything looks particular unusual they may take a skin or nail sample to run further tests. Not every foot infection is athlete’s foot, so it is never a bad idea to check in with a doctor and see what they have to say about your particular situation or the shape of your feet.
In this situation the most common test used for diagnosis is a KOH (potassium hydroxide) exam. This is where a small area of infected skin is scraped and then those flecks are placed in the potassium hydroxide. The reason this is done is that the KOH will completely destroy the normal healthy cells but any fungal based cells will be untouched. This makes them very easy to see underneath a microscope, so that they can be identified accordingly.
How Serious Is Athlete’s Foot?
Most of the time athlete’s foot isn’t very serious at all and many off the shelf treatments are often enough to fight off the infection over time, assuming the person is not constantly re-exposed to it (something that can be a problem if locker rooms, group showers, or pools are a constant part of your schedule).
However, there are exceptions. If you are a diabetic then anything afflicting the feet can cause major issues, and that includes athlete’s feet. When seeing a doctor in this situation, make sure to mention that you are a diabetic when looking at whether or not you have athlete’s feet. This is one of those situations where the issue is a bit more serious.
There are also times when a doctor will want to know if an original treatment for athlete’s feet hasn’t been working. This could be a sign that there is more going on, and they will certainly want to know about that in order to get you the right treatment that will actually get the job done.
That being said, most of the time this is a relatively minor health issue on the overall scale of things that can go wrong. Even with that being said, however, athlete’s feet is hard to kill and extremely easy to pass along. This is a major reason why it is still important to seek treatment.
How To Cure Athlete’s Foot?
Treatments tend to be relatively simple in the majority of cases but they can vary based on the severity of the infection. The far majority of the time mild or minor cases of athlete’s foot will be treated with an over the counter treatment that you don’t need a prescription for. These might come in the form of a spray, powder, lotion, ointment, or it might be just left up to you to use whatever form you prefer.
If your case is severe or you come back because there’s been no response from the conventional treatments then in that case there are stronger prescription level medicines that will probably be assigned as the next step in getting the infection under control. The far majority of cases are going to be covered by one of these two options, but for extremely severe infections, there are some heavy duty anti-fungus pills that are orally taken and might be used solo, or even in conjunction with a topical treatment in order to get the worst of the worst outbreaks back under control.
Depending on if you are suffering from blisters or not, you might also want to soak your feet at home in salt water or a diluted vinegar base. This can help dry out the blisters and prevent them from bursting and bringing a bacterial infection into the mix.
How To Prevent Athlete’s Foot?
Depending on your situation, preventing athlete’s foot at all times might prove extremely difficult, however there are many steps you can take to help minimize your chances of contracting it or to treat it so quickly that it is a minimally frustrating experience.
One of the big ones is to have your own pair of shower sandals. Wear them in any gym or swimming pool shower or locker room. Don’t let your feet touch the ground! Even at a swimming pool wearing this out until you find a spot to sit or set your towel can be a good idea to minimize your bare feet contact with areas where the fungus could potentially thrive.
Wearing thick or heavy shoes that don’t allow air flow can increase your chances of getting athlete’s foot. The same is true with wearing tight socks, especially if they get damp frequently or are re-wore more than once before washing. The key is to keep the feet dry, so using talcum and anti-fungal powder once or twice a day definitely helps to keep your feet dry and fungus free. This is definitely a great preventive measure.
Allowing shoes to air out and having an anti-athlete’s foot spray that you use after every gym workout, athletic competition, or on the inside of your shoes in general, is also a good way to tilt the scales in your favor. These preventive actions might not work 100% perfectly, but they will definitely help you increase your chances of keep athlete’s foot at bay.
This page was authored by Brian Bradshaw, who represents the Boot Bomb. Brian is backed up by an expert team, made up of experienced family and friends, all of which are knowledgeable in the ways of footwear and/or hiking. His ancestors used to own a shoe store for almost a century. He has lived and breathed footwear for as long as he can remember.
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