Athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis, is a fungal infection that affects the feet, typically spaces between your toes. It typically spreads in shared spaces such as locker rooms and showers and, as its name suggests, is common amongst athletes.
The most common symptoms of athlete’s foot are cracked, itchy and burning skin on your feet, especially between your toes.
For most people, athlete’s foot isn’t a serious infection. However, it can be a major annoyance that spreads easily from person to person. It may also cause complications if you have a weak immune system or a medical condition such as diabetes.
Like other fungal infections, athlete’s foot is treatable, with a variety of over-the-counter creams and prescription medications available to remove fungus and improve your skin.
Below, we’ve explained exactly what athlete’s foot is, the symptoms it typically causes and the most common ways to catch and spread athlete’s foot. We’ve also listed a range of treatments for athlete’s foot, as well as tips that you can use to prevent this common infection.
Athlete’s foot is a skin infection that’s caused by fungi. Like many other fungal skin infections, it’s very common, with an estimated 10 percent of the population affected by some degree of fungal infection in the toes.
A variety of different names are used to refer to athlete's foot. Clinically, it’s usually referred to as tinea pedis. It’s also sometimes referred to as foot ringworm or ringworm of the feet.
Athlete’s foot is related to several other skin and nail infections, including ringworm, jock itch, scalp ringworm and nail infections such as onychomycosis. These infections are commonly caused by the same group of fungi and are referred to as tinea infections.
Of the tinea infections, athlete’s foot is the most common. While it’s a common annoyance for athlete’s, it can potentially affect people of any age, background and activity level.
Like other fungal infections, athlete’s foot is very contagious. It usually spreads through direct contact with an infected person’s skin or through contact with the specific fungi that cause this infection to develop.
The most common symptom of athlete’s foot is the development of a rash on the feet, typically between your toes or on the sides of your feet. The skin in this area generally becomes flaky and cracked, with some parts of the skin peeling away.
Areas of skin affected by athlete’s foot can be red, itchy and irritated, with a burning or stinging pain. This may spread to other areas of the feet over time as the infection worsens. Athlete’s foot may also cause inflammation and swelling of certain areas of the feet.
Some people with athlete’s foot develop blisters. These blisters may break, causing exposure of the tissue, swelling and discomfort.
In some cases, athlete’s foot can spread to the soles of the feet. This is referred to as moccasin athlete’s foot. Moccasin athlete’s foot causes the skin on the soles of your feet to become dry, scaly and itchy.
Although athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that specifically affects the feet, the fungi that causes athlete’s foot can spread to other areas of your body.
If you touch or scratch affected areas of skin then touch other parts of your body, it’s possible to spread athlete’s foot to your torso (ringworm), groin (jock itch) or scalp. It’s also possible for the fungi that cause athlete’s foot to spread to your nails, causing a fungal toenail infection.
Athlete’s foot often comes back after treatment. Some people may experience chronic infections that recur frequently and require ongoing attention, while others may notice athlete’s foot quickly disappearing with the use of medication.
Because athlete’s foot can spread around the body easily, it’s important to take action and treat it as soon as you notice symptoms developing to prevent the infection from worsening.
Athlete’s foot is caused by the growth of fungus on your skin. A diverse variety of different fungi can cause athlete’s foot to develop. Of these, the trichophyton rubrum fungus is by far the most common, causing about 70 percent of all athlete’s foot infections.
The fungi that typically cause athlete’s foot grow best in areas that are warm and moist, such as locker rooms and showers. Foot baths, clothes and other items that come into contact with the feet can also spread the fungi that cause athlete’s foot to develop.
Since your feet are warm, moist and protected by footwear during the day, they create a perfect environment for the growth of fungi. The feet are also rich in keratin, a type of protein that fungi use to develop and spread.
Several factors may increase your risk of catching athlete’s foot. These factors may also cause the infection to worsen and spread to other people over time. You may have an elevated risk of developing athlete’s foot if you:
Although athlete’s foot is annoying, it’s usually an easy condition to treat. Most cases of athlete’s foot can be treated using over-the-counter medications, along with some changes to your habits and lifestyle to prevent the infection from coming back.
More severe or persistent cases of athlete’s foot may require the use of prescription antifungal medications. We’ve provided more information below about how each treatment option works and what to look for if you have athlete’s foot that requires treatment.
Most over-the-counter antifungal creams, gels, powders and other topical products are effective at treating athlete’s foot. You can purchase these medications from your local pharmacy or drug store without a prescription.
Topical antifungals work by killing the fungus that causes athlete’s foot, preventing the infection from worsening or spreading elsewhere on your body.
Common over-the-counter antifungal medications include clotrimazole (sold as Lotrimin® and other brand names), terbinafine (Lamisil®), econazole (Spectazole®), ketoconazole (Nizoral®), tolnaftate (Tinactin®) and others.
You can find the instructions for these medications on their packaging. Make sure to wash the affected skin before you apply the medication. Wash your hands thoroughly using warm water and soap after applying any topical antifungal treatment.
Topical antifungal medications are typically effective, but need to be used for several weeks to prevent the infection from coming back. Make sure that you keep applying your medication for one to two weeks after the infection clears to prevent the athlete’s foot from recurring.
If you’ve previously had recurring athlete’s foot infections, your healthcare provider may advise that you continue using topical medication as a preventative measure.
Most cases of athlete’s foot can be treated using topical medications. However, if you have a stubborn case of athlete’s foot, or if you get persistent infections, your healthcare provider may recommend the use of prescription medication.
Common prescription medications for athlete’s foot include oral antifungals and strong topical creams. If you have a bacterial infection caused by scratching, your healthcare provider may also prescribe an antibiotic.
Like with over-the-counter medications, it’s important to continue using your medication for the full treatment period to prevent the infection from coming back.
Athlete’s foot can easily spread to other parts of your body, potentially causing fungal infections such as jock itch and ringworm. While you’re treating athlete’s foot, use these tactics to reduce your risk of spreading the fungal infection elsewhere:
If you have another fungal skin or nail infection at the same time as athlete’s foot, it’s important to treat both of the infections at the same time. Make sure to let your healthcare provider know so that they can prescribe an effective treatment.
Like other fungal skin infections, you can reduce your risk of developing athlete’s foot by making a few small changes to your habits and lifestyle. Try the following techniques to prevent athlete’s foot from developing or coming back after treatment:
Athlete’s foot is an annoying skin issue that affects most people at some point in life. Although it can be itchy, painful and quite uncomfortable, it’s rarely a serious issue and is usually easy to treat using over-the-counter medication and a few lifestyle changes.
If you have persistent or severe athlete’s foot, or if you have several fungal skin infections at the same time, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. They’ll be able to help you treat the infection, clear up your skin and prevent athlete’s foot from coming back again in the future.