What is athlete's foot?

Quick Answer
A microscopic fungal infection that lives on the outer layers of skin, nails, or hair on the feet.
Expert Answers
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Causes and Symptoms

Several different dermatophytes (microscopic fungi) can cause tinea pedis through contact with the skin on the bottom of the foot. Once contact is made, the dermatophytes grow if the environmental conditions are right. These fungi thrive in warm, moist surroundings such as wet shoes and socks or the floors of pool decks, showers, and locker rooms. Since sweat is a common source of moisture for fungal growth, this disorder is often associated with athletes—thus the term “athlete’s foot.” It is commonly believed that athlete’s foot is highly contagious. However, the presence of the fungus on the healthy foot does not necessarily result in the disorder; a warm, moist environment is also required.

The most common symptom of athlete’s foot is constant itching or burning of the skin between the toes, particularly the outside, smaller toes. The skin turns white and begins to peel. A scaly, dry rash develops and frequently progresses to cracks or fissures. A clear fluid may be released. If untreated, the infection may spread to the toenails and other areas of the foot. Also, the person becomes more susceptible to secondary bacterial infections.

Another form of athlete’s foot results in a red, scaly rash that spreads across the bottom and sides of the foot. Because the rash pattern resembles a moccasin, this form is often called “moccasin foot.”

Treatment and Therapy

With good hygiene and the removal of moist, warm environmental conditions, the fungus may die off on its own. If these conditions are not treated, however, the fungus can persevere for years. The best results occur with the use of antifungal drugs. Many types are available over the counter in creams, powders, sprays, or liquids. Imidazole drugs attack the cell walls of the fungus and keep the cells from growing and reproducing. Eventually, the infection will die off. More severe infections are treated with allylamine drugs. These drugs, which must be obtained with a prescription, cause a buildup of toxins that kill the fungi.

The best treatment for athlete’s foot is to prevent it by using good foot hygiene. Feet should be washed daily with soap and water. Wet feet should always be dried thoroughly, especially between the toes. Shoes and socks should be kept dry by regular changing and the use of foot powder to absorb moisture, if needed. Wearing light, airy shoes to reduce perspiration of the feet is also beneficial.


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