What is athlete's foot?

What is athlete's foot?

  Man inspecting his foot    

If your foot is feeling a bit itchy, or dry, or smelling a bit funky then you might have picked up a nasty case of athlete’s foot.


No, this infection isn’t just confined to actual athletes, so you can’t avoid it by lying on the sofa and eating cake (although that doesn’t mean I won’t try).


If you think your itchy foot could be a sign of athlete’s foot then keep reading, we’ll clear up some facts so you can focus on clearing up that infection!


What is athlete’s foot?


Athlete’s foot is a common fungal infection that affects your feet. It’s part of a type of fungal infections known as tinea, and its medical name is tinea pedis.


Athlete’s foot usually harmless and can be treated easily with remedies from your pharmacy that can help it to clear up pretty quickly.


However, sometimes athlete’s foot can keep coming back, which can mean a trip to see your doctor for a different treatment and possibly some tests.


If you think you might have athlete’s foot, make sure to go and see your doctor or pharmacist as soon as possible, so they can be sure that you do have this infection before you start to treat it.


How do you get athlete’s foot?


You get athlete’s foot when you come into contact with someone else who has the infection, for example, skin to skin contact with someone who has athlete’s foot.


However, you’re not safe just because you haven’t touched someone’s foot directly.


If you’re walking around barefoot in a gym changing room or using a public shower and someone else has been walking around in the same space with a bad case of athlete’s foot, then you could easily pick it up too.


If you have wet or sweaty feet, or have broken or damaged skin on your feet, then you might pick up athlete’s foot more easily.


This is because moist, warm places are the perfect environments for fungus to thrive, so your sweaty gym trainers are athlete’s foot’s dream home.


What are the symptoms of athlete’s foot?


Athlete’s foot has some common symptoms that you can look for if you think you’ve picked up an infection.


They’re unpleasant and annoying, so if you look down at your itchy foot and find that the items on this list are looking very familiar, you should make an appointment to see your doctor or pharmacist for a proper diagnosis right away:


  • Itchy or burning patches of white skin
  • Scaly, very dry, cracked, or peeling skin
  • Skin that might split or bleed
  • Blisters
  • Cracked heels
  • A bad smell


Is athlete’s foot painful?


The athlete’s foot infection itself isn’t particularly painful, 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 you’re 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?


Anyone who’s ever had athlete’s foot can tell you that it can make your feet stink, but what’s that smell?


Well, 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!


What does athlete’s foot look like?


As you’ve read through our descriptions of athlete’s foot and all of its lovely symptoms, you’ve probably realised that it’s not the most pleasant skin condition to look at.


However, we know there are some of you out there who’ll want to know what to look for, or maybe you just like to give yourself a bit of a fright for fun, either way, we’re not judging.


We’ve found a picture of a lovely looking athlete’s foot infection, so if you’re someone who’s a bit squeamish about foot fungus, look away now and scroll down really quickly!



Is athlete’s foot contagious?


Athlete’s foot is contagious and can spread from person to person or even to different areas of your body.


If you’ve got athlete’s foot and don’t want to share it with your friends and family (trust me, they’ll hate you for it!), there are a couple of things you can do to keep your infection to yourself.


For starters, don’t share any shoes, socks, clothing, or towels with anyone else until your infection has entirely healed.


If you’re going to towel your infected foot dry, use a different towel than you’d use for the rest of your body.


Don’t go barefoot in public areas, such as the pool or changing rooms, as you could pass the infection on to anyone else who walks through the area barefoot.


Finally, remember to wash your hands thoroughly after you touch your feet or apply any treatment, this will help you to keep the infection from spreading to your hands or other parts of the body.



What’s the best treatment for athlete’s foot?


So now you’re probably wondering how to treat athlete’s foot. Well you have a few options available to you, and your pharmacist will be able to recommend which one will be best for you and your lifestyle.


There are four main types of antifungal treatments for athlete's foot; creams, powders, sprays, and tablets.


They all work in a similar way, by killing the fungus that causes your athlete’s foot, giving your skin the chance to repair and recover from the infection.


Your pharmacist will usually recommend a cream, powder, or spray at first, and these will normally be enough to keep your infection in check, but some with extreme cases of athlete’s foot might need to take an anti-fungal tablet as well.


The first thing to do is to speak to your pharmacist (don’t be shy, they’ve seen athlete’s foot a thousand times before) so they can recommend the best possible treatment for you and get your healing started as soon as possible.


Are there any home remedies for athlete’s foot?


There aren’t any home remedies for athlete’s foot, but there are a few things you can do to help to keep you from picking up a fungal infection.


For starters, wear flip flops or sandals in public places, rather than going barefoot. Yes, that includes in the shower. You might feel like it’s overkill, but it’s worth it to prevent an athlete’s foot infection.


While you’re at it, never share socks, shoes, or towels with other people, you don’t know what nasty fungus might be lurking in those fabrics!


Wear clean socks every day and try to avoid wearing the same shoes for more than 2 days in a row, trust me, your feet will thank you for it!


Finally, always dry your feet thoroughly after you’ve washed them, using a separate towel to the rest of your body if possible, and make sure you wash your towels regularly.



Can athlete’s foot spread to other areas of your body?


We’ve briefly mentioned this before, but athlete’s foot can spread to other parts of your body if you’re not careful.


However, when athlete’s foot spreads away from your feet then it’s probably called something slightly different, after all, it makes no sense to call it athlete’s foot if it’s on your hands!


Let’s have a quick look at some common places athlete’s foot can spread to if you’re not careful when handling your infection.


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.


Remember how we mentioned earlier that athlete’s foot’s medical name is tinea pedis? When this infection spreads to your hands then 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, for example, 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.


Don’t worry, there’s no actual worms involved, it’s just named ringworm because someone thought that they circular rash looked a bit wormy. If you take a look at a picture of it, you'll see what they were getting at.



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 that 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.


Can you get athlete’s foot around your groin?


This one’s really fun. Yes, the athlete’s foot infection can spread to your groin if you’re not careful, and aren’t you pleased to know it!


If you get the tinea infection around your groin, then it will appear as a condition known as jock itch and it’s just as pleasant as it sounds!


You’ll have all of the rash, the itching, the burning, and the dry, flaky skin associated with athlete’s foot, but around your groin and inner thighs. Ain’t that grand?


When should I see my doctor?


Normally, you won’t need to see your doctor to diagnose athlete’s foot, your chemist can help you out and make sure you’re getting the proper treatment without having to hang around in the doctor’s office.


However, there are a few signs that say that this case of athlete’s foot may be signalling something more similar, so make sure to make an appointment to see your doctor if you notice any of the following:


  • Your athlete’s foot keeps coming back, even after pharmacy treatments
  • Your pharmacy treatment isn’t working at all
  • Your foot is red, hot, and painful, this could mean that you have a more serious infection
  • You have diabetes or other circulatory problems, as foot conditions can be more serious for you or may need different treatment
  • You have a weakened immune system, e.g. due to a medical condition, an organ transplant, or chemotherapy



Now you probably know everything you’ve ever wanted to know about athlete’s foot… and probably a few things you didn’t want to know thrown into the bargain.


Remember, if you think you’ve got an infection, get yourself down to see your doctor or pharmacist for a check-up, they’ll be able to help you get rid of that nasty infection quick!


Laura Henderson - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 17 September 2021
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