Athlete's Foot: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments & Prevention

Katelyn Hagerty FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 12/18/2020

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.  

What Is Athlete’s Foot?

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.

Symptoms of Athlete’s Foot

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. 

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What Causes Athlete’s Foot?

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.

Risk Factors for Athlete’s Foot

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:

  • Use public locker rooms, showers and other shared spaces often. These areas are ideal places for the fungi that typically cause athlete’s foot and other fungal infections to grow.

    Your risk is highest if you walk barefoot in these areas. Other high-risk areas for athlete’s foot include saunas and swimming pools.

  • Sweat often. Like other fungal infections, athlete’s foot can develop in skin that’s damp and sweaty. Clothing and footwear like sweaty socks or tight-fitting shoes can trap sweat against the skin and increase your risk of developing athlete’s foot.

  • Keep your feet wet after swimming, exercising or other activities. Fungi can grow on damp skin. Things like wearing wet shoes, walking in damp areas or not drying your feet after getting them wet may increase your risk of getting athlete’s foot.

  • Have skin or nail injuries. Skin that’s injured has a higher risk of infection. If you have a minor rash, cut or another type of skin injury, you may have a higher risk of developing athlete’s foot. Similarly, nail injuries may increase your risk for fungal nail infections.

  • Have a partner with athlete’s foot or another fungal infection. The fungi that cause athlete’s foot can spread via bedding, towels and other items, meaning you may have a higher risk of catching athlete’s foot if your partner has a fungal infection.

  • Wear certain types of footwear in the workplace. Some types of workplace footwear, such as rubber boots or safety work boots, may increase your risk of catching athlete’s foot.

  • Have a health issue that affects circulation in your legs. Conditions that affect blood circulation in your legs and feet, including diabetes and peripheral artery disease (PAD), may increase your risk of developing athlete’s foot.

  • Have a weakened immune system. If you have a medical condition or are currently using medication that weakens your immune system, you may have a higher risk of developing athlete’s foot.

  • Are genetically predisposed to fungal infections. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to fungal infections such as athlete’s foot. For example, you may be at risk if other members of your family often develop this infection.

Treatments for Athlete’s Foot

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. 

Over-the-Counter Medications

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. 

Prescription Medications

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. 

Self-Care and Lifestyle Changes

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:

  • Use a separate towel to dry your feet. When it’s time to dry yourself after a shower or bath, make sure to use two towels — one for the area with athlete’s foot and another for the rest of your body. This can help prevent the infection from spreading.

    After you’re finished, wash the towel that you used for the affected area with hot, soapy water.

  • After drying, use lamb’s wool to separate your toes. If your athlete’s foot is painful or itchy, separate your toes using a small amount of lamb’s wool. Lamb’s wool is available from most drug stores.

  • Use foot powder in shoes and socks. This will help to keep your feet dry and prevent the moisture that causes fungi to thrive. You can purchase foot powder from most drug stores and supermarkets.

  • Wash your hands after touching the affected area. Avoid touching other parts of your body after touching the area with athlete’s foot, as this can spread the fungal infection to other skin.

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. 

How to Prevent Athlete’s Foot

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:

  • Wash your feet thoroughly. When you shower, especially after exercising, make sure to thoroughly wash your feet with soap and water. Pay special attention to the areas of skin between your toes, as well as other areas in which athlete’s foot develops.

  • After you shower, dry your feet carefully. It’s especially important to dry between your toes, as this is where fungus often affects the skin. Make sure that your feet are fully dry before you put on socks and shoes.

  • When you’re in a locker room, wear flip-flops or shower sandals. Locker rooms and public showers are high-risk areas for athlete’s foot. Wear a pair of flip-flops to keep your feet elevated and away from surfaces that could contain infectious fungi.

  • Change socks frequently, especially after exercising. It’s important to change socks regularly throughout the day, especially if you sweat often. Make sure to change into a fresh pair of socks after you finish showering, particularly after workouts.

    If you get sweaty feet easily, try wearing synthetic blend socks during your workouts and sports to wick away moisture and prevent your shoes from becoming damp.

  • If you sweat heavily, apply talcum powder to your feet. Talcum powder can soak up moisture and prevent your feet from becoming overly damp. If you’re prone to athlete’s foot, try applying it before workouts, sports and other activities that cause sweating.

  • Alternate shoes, especially for sports and exercise. Try to avoid wearing the same pair of shoes every day, especially for workouts and sports. When you’re wearing one pair of shoes, let the other dry and get some fresh air.

  • Avoid sharing clothes, towels or personal care items. Fungal infections like athlete’s foot and jock itch can easily spread from shared clothes and towels, making it important not to share these items with others.

  • Clip your nails short and keep them clean. Fungal infections can develop and spread via your nails. Keep your nails clipped short and clean them regularly to reduce your risk of developing and spreading fungal infections like athlete’s foot.

  • Use antifungal laundry detergent. If you have recurring fungal infections, try using an antifungal laundry detergent to kill fungi that live in clothes and bedding. If possible, try to wash socks, towels and bedding at a temperature of 140°F or higher.

  • If you’re prescribed medication, continue using it as recommended. You may need to continue using medication even after the infection clears up in order to prevent it from coming back. Make sure to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. 

In Conclusion

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. We also have a complete man's guide to foot care if you want to learn more.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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