Athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis, is a type of fungal infection of the feet. It’s also known as ringworm of the foot (the medical name for ringworm is tinea).
It typically occurs in people whose feet have become sweaty while wearing tight-fitting shoes.
Causes and Risk Factors of Athlete’s Foot
Athlete’s foot may be caused by several different types of fungi, including yeasts.
Most commonly, fungi called dermatophytes — which require keratin for growth and frequently lead to skin diseases — can cause the foot infection.
Dermatophytes also cause the skin infections ringworm and jock itch.
In the case of athlete’s foot, the fungi grow in the top layer of skin (the epidermis) and first enter the skin through small cracks.
The microbes require moisture and warmth to grow and spread.
Athlete’s foot is contagious, so it’s possible to get the infection from touching the affected skin of someone who has it, even if they don’t have an active case.
In addition, you can get athlete’s foot if you have poor hygiene, such as if you:
- Don’t wash and dry your feet after exercising, or after your feet get wet (including from sweat)
- Wear damp socks or tight-fitting shoes
- Share mats, rugs, bed linens, clothes, or shoes with someone who has it
- Walk barefoot in public areas such as locker rooms, saunas, swimming pools, and showers
How Is Athlete’s Foot Diagnosed?
Your doctor may be able to diagnose athlete’s foot simply by looking at it.
The diagnosis can also be confirmed by your doctor by taking a thorough patient history.
- A KOH test
- A skin culture
- A skin biopsy
In a KOH test, your doctor will use a needle or another tool to scrape samples from your skin and examine them under a microscope. Then a solution containing potassium hydroxide (KOH) is added to the samples to dissolve the cellular material to reveal any fungi.
For a skin culture, your doctor will use a cotton swab to collect a sample from the affected area for lab testing.
A skin biopsy can also be used to identify the specific fungus causing your athlete’s foot. It’s also usually performed in your doctor’s office, under local anesthetic.
It usually takes about two weeks to receive results for these tests.
Prognosis of Athlete’s Foot
Athlete’s foot usually responds well to self-care, although it can come back.
If you have a health condition that places you at increased risk for infections — such as diabetes — long-term treatment with antifungal medication and preventive measures may be necessary.
The infection can also spread to the toenails, causing them to crack.
Treatment and Medication Options for Athlete’s Foot
OTC antifungal creams, gels, lotions, sprays, and powders for athlete’s foot should contain one of the following active ingredients:
Your doctor may also recommend prescription oral antifungal medicines — examples include terbinafine or itraconazole — or oral antibiotics for any bacterial infections that may develop.
There are also prescription topical creams designed to kill the fungus that causes athlete’s foot.
How to Prevent and Treat 8 Common Skin Problems
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
For athlete’s foot, some people swear by home remedies such as tea tree oil or footbaths that contain certain herbal products. However, there have been very few studies evaluating the effectiveness of these remedies for athlete’s foot, and what few exist have yielded conflicting results.
Prevention of Athlete’s Foot
- Keeping feet clean and dry
- Washing your feet with soap after exercising
- Avoiding wearing heavy, closed shoes or thick socks
- Changing socks often
- Making sure socks are washed between uses
- Using antifungal foot powder on feet and in shoes
- Wearing flip-flops in gym showers or locker rooms to avoid contact with fungi
- Airing your feet out by taking your shoes off, or wearing sandals, as often as possible
- Avoiding public swimming pools and public showers
- Not sharing with others items used during exercise (equipment, towels, etc.)
Try wearing only cotton socks, which are more effective at absorbing sweat. If possible, choose footwear made with breathable materials, such as leather. Shoes made of vinyl and similar materials can retain sweat and create an environment for fungi to grow. When you’re doing laundry, consider using hot water and bleach, which can kill fungi in ways detergent can’t.
Related: Is That Rash Psoriasis or Something Else?
Research and Statistics: Who Has Athlete’s Foot/How Many People Have Athlete’s Foot
Athlete’s foot is believed to be more common in men than in women, although there are no exact statistics for prevalence based on gender.
Resources We Love
The American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society maintains FootcareMD.org, a site that provides comprehensive information on a variety of conditions affecting the feet (it also includes a symptom checker).
The American Podiatric Medical Association’s site is another trustworthy source of information on conditions affecting the feet, such as diabetes.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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Athlete’s Foot: Overview. InformedHealth.org. June 14, 2018.
Treatment for Ringworm. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. October 11, 2019.
Satchell AC, Saurajen A, Bell C, Barnetson RS. Treatment of Interdigital Tinea Pedis With 25% and 50% Tea Tree Oil Solution: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Blinded Study. Australasian Journal of Dermatology. August 2002.
Ledezma E, Marcano K, Jorquera A, De Sousa L, et al. Efficacy of Ajoene in the Treatment of Tinea Pedis: A Double-Blind and Comparative Study With Terbinafine. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. November 2000.
Athlete’s Foot. Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. November 28, 2012.
Athlete’s Foot. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Athlete’s Foot. American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society.
Athlete’s Foot. University of Michigan Health System. October 30, 2019.