Athlete's Foot - Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention

Athlete's foot [1], medically known as tinea pedis, is a fungal infection that commonly affects the skin of the feet, often occurring between the toes due to the warm, moist conditions created by sweaty feet and tight shoes. 

It’s very contagious and is characterised by symptoms like white patches between the toes, persistent itching, redness, burning, peeling and even blisters. 

There are different types of athlete's foot, including interdigital, moccasin and vesicular. Diagnosis is typically based on clinical symptoms, and treatment options range from over-the-counter antifungal creams to prescription medications.

Good hygiene practices, such as keeping feet clean and dry, changing socks regularly and wearing breathable shoes can help prevent and manage athlete’s foot.


A distinctive feature of athlete’s foot is white, powdery patches between the toes. Intense itching, redness, inflammation, burning and a dry, scaly appearance with peeling are common, while more severe cases can lead to painful skin cracking and the formation of fluid-filled blisters. 

Untreated athlete's foot can extend to the toenails, causing fungal nail infections that alter their colour, thickness and texture. That’s why it’s important to treat athlete’s foot as soon as possible to prevent the spread.

Is athlete’s foot painful?

Athlete’s foot itself isn’t particularly painful, as you’re more likely to experience an itching or burning sensation at first. However, some of the symptoms of athlete’s foot can cause you pain, especially when walking.

For example, walking on cracked heels, blisters or broken skin between your toes can cause pain, especially when you’re putting more weight on the infected foot.

What does athlete’s foot smell like?

The smell of athlete’s foot can be different from person to person, so while some people describe the smell as being sour or mouldy smelling, others might think theirs smells cheesy. Either way, it’s entirely personal, and very unpleasant when you take your socks off!


Athlete's foot is a fungal infection caused by dermatophytes, the same fungi responsible for ringworm and jock itch. These fungi thrive in warm, humid environments, making damp socks and shoes ideal breeding grounds. 

Athlete's foot is highly contagious and can spread through direct contact with an infected person or contaminated surfaces like towels, floors and shoes. Additionally, scratching or picking the infected areas can lead to the spread of the infection to other parts of the body.

Can you get athlete’s foot on your hands?

If you touch your feet or apply an athlete’s foot treatment without washing your hands properly, then the infection can spread to your hands pretty quickly. When this infection spreads to your hands it becomes a condition called tinea manuum, although you may know it as ringworm.

Ringworm can appear anywhere on the body and has a few different names depending on where the infection is. Athlete’s foot is the name for the ringworm infection when it appears on your feet.

If you have ringworm you may notice a ring-shaped red or silver rash, which can grow or spread over time.

Can athlete’s foot spread to your face?

If you don’t wash your hands after touching your feet and then touch your face or head, then the infection can spread to your face or scalp. Again, infections in these places will be known as ringworm and will have the signature round rash, but it’s all the same infection and can be treated in a similar way.

Make sure to see your doctor so they can diagnose your infection and give you the best possible treatment to use on your face or scalp.


Your GP or pharmacist can typically diagnose athlete’s foot by looking at the area and asking about your symptoms or lifestyle.

In some cases, however, a sample may need to be taken and sent off to the lab to identify the specific type of fungi responsible for the infection.

When to see your GP

If you have athlete's foot and find that over-the-counter treatments from a pharmacy are ineffective, or if you are enduring significant discomfort, it's essential to seek attention from your GP.

Additionally, if you notice symptoms such as a hot, painful and red foot or leg (which might be less noticeable on darker skin tones), this could indicate a more severe infection requiring immediate medical evaluation. 

Furthermore, if the infection spreads to other areas of your body, such as your hands, or if you have underlying health conditions like diabetes or a weakened immune system due to factors such as organ transplants or chemotherapy, it's crucial to consult your GP. 

These conditions can heighten the seriousness of foot problems.


Athlete's foot is unlikely to get better on its own, so it’s important to treat it as soon as possible to prevent the infection from spreading. 

Over-the-counter antifungal medications can be purchased at a pharmacy, and they take about 2 weeks to work. Athlete's foot treatments are available in various forms, including creams, sprays and powders.

However, it's essential to choose the right treatment based on individual factors, as not all are suitable for everyone; for instance, some may be intended only for adults. 

To determine the most suitable option, always read the product information on the package or consult a pharmacist for advice. It might be necessary to try several treatments before finding the one that works best for your specific case.

You can also get treatment from your GP. They may prescribe you a steroid cream to use alongside an antifungal cream, or they may offer you antifungal tablets that you take for several weeks. 

If needed, your GP may refer you to a dermatologist for more tests and treatment if needed.


Athlete's foot can be effectively prevented by maintaining good foot hygiene, washing your feet daily and thoroughly drying them, particularly between the toes where fungi often thrive. 

Choose moisture-wicking socks made of materials like cotton and change them daily, especially if they become damp. Opt for breathable footwear such as leather or mesh shoes and rotate your shoes to allow proper ventilation. 

Consider using antifungal products like foot powder or spray if you are prone to fungal infections. In communal areas like locker rooms and showers, protect your feet by wearing flip-flops or shower shoes. 

Avoid sharing personal items and refrain from scratching or picking at your feet. Keep toenails well-trimmed, select sports gear carefully, and manage excessive foot sweating.

Alexandra Moses - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 27 September 2023
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