Athlete’s Foot: Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

By Nena Luster DNP, MBA, FNP-BC
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 28, 2022

Though many people typically associate athlete’s foot with swimmers, athletes, and teenagers, the condition is actually incredibly common and can affect all people of all ages. 

While this contagious skin condition can be uncomfortable and unsightly, athlete’s foot is nothing to be ashamed of.

If you think you or a loved one might have it, just know you are not alone—70% of the population will become infected with athlete’s foot at some point in their lives, and many people get it more than once.

But what is athlete’s foot, and how do you get it and get rid of it?

These are great questions, and we’ll be answering them in depth in this article.

Below, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of athlete’s foot, explain what causes athlete’s foot, what it looks and feels like, who is most likely to get it, how to treat it, and how to prevent it before it becomes a problem. 

What Is Athlete’s Foot (Tinea Pedis)? 

Athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis or ringworm of the foot, is a skin disease that affects the feet.

It is caused by a contagious fungal infection.

The infection manifests itself most often in the gaps between the toes, though it can appear on other parts of the feet, like the soles, heels, tops, and edges of the feet. 

The infected skin can develop an itchy, stinging, or burning rash, which can cause the skin to appear dry and flaky.

This rash can be quite uncomfortable and unsightly.

Luckily, the infection normally responds well to self-care and other treatments, disappearing within a couple of weeks. 

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for athlete’s foot to return, even after successful treatment. 

Concerned about athlete’s foot? Chat with a provider through K Health.

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Signs and Symptoms

The most common symptom related to athlete’s foot is cracked, peeling, flaky skin in between the toes or on the sides of the foot. 

Other signs and symptoms of athlete’s foot can include the following:

  • Itching, burning, and/or stinging of the skin between the toes
  • Redness of the skin between the toes
  • Inflammation or swelling between the toes
  • Blisters that ooze and then crust over between the toes
  • A bad odor coming from the feet 

It’s possible for the fungus to spread to the toenails—which may then become discolored or even crumbly—as well as the soles of the feet.

It can also spread to other parts of the body if the infected person scratches the affected area and then touches somewhere else on their body. 

Athlete’s foot has also been known to appear alongside other fungal or yeast skin infections, like jock itch.

Causes 

As previously mentioned, athlete’s foot is a skin disease caused by a contagious fungal infection.

The fungi that infect the skin are called dermatophytes and infect the top layer of the skin. 

The dermatophytes typically enter through small cracks or openings in the skin, and infections can be caused by direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person or through contact with infected flakes of skin.

Many people acquire athlete’s foot by stepping on infected pieces of skin on pool decks or communal showers. 

Athlete’s foot is so prevalent because feet are the perfect place for fungi to thrive.

The fungus that causes athlete’s foot can grow on other parts of the body, but fungi need warmth and moisture to grow and spread—and our feet, which are typically in shoes all day, are an ideal breeding ground.

The top layer of skin in our feet also contains a lot of a protein called keratin, which dermatophytes feed on. 

Diagnosis

Your doctor will typically determine whether or not you have athlete’s foot by asking questions about your symptoms and examining the affected areas.

If required, your doctor may also order tests to be done to conclusively determine whether or not you have athlete’s foot. 

These tests can include:

  • A KOH examination, which is a simple test done in-office that can check to see if a skin infection is caused by fungus
  • A skin culture test can determine whether fungus is present by seeing if germs grow on the culture
  • A skin biopsy, which uses a stain called PAS to identify fungus in a lab setting

Risk Factors 

Anyone can get athlete’s foot, but there are certain groups that are more likely to become infected

These groups include people who have:

  • Sweaty feet
  • Allergies
  • Eczema 
  • A weak immune system
  • Circulatory problems in their legs, such as people with diabetes
  • A job requiring sturdy shoes, like work boots
  • Shared showers

Athletes are also at risk, especially those who swim or run. 

Prevention 

Athlete’s foot is highly contagious, but there are ways to protect yourself from being infected, as well as ways to keep a case under control if you do contract it.

If you are trying to prevent athlete’s foot, consider the following preventative measures:

  • Taking your shoes off as often as possible
  • Wearing sandals or flip-flops in communal spaces like saunas, showers, pools, and locker rooms
  • Wearing shoes that aren’t too tight and allow your feet to breathe
  • Thoroughly drying your feet after they get wet (including in between the toes)
  • Consistently washing your feet and in between your toes using antibacterial soap
  • Allowing your shoes 24 hours to dry before re-wearing them (alternating shoes daily is a great way to do this)
  • Wearing socks made of cotton, wool, or other moisture-wicking fabrics
  • Washing socks, bedding, and towels in hot water (60 degrees Celsius or more)
  • Refusing to share socks, bedding, and towels with others
  • Using talcum powder or antifungal powder on your feet to reduce moisture
  • Adding antifungal laundry sanitizers to your load of wash
  • Using disinfecting sprays or wipes to clean your shoes

Treatment

One important thing to note about athlete’s foot: It won’t go away on its own.

Athlete’s foot is highly contagious and incredibly persistent, so you have to fight back against it in order to make sure it goes—and actually stays—away. 

Luckily, there are many ways to treat it, both through self-care and medications. 

Self-care: There are many ways you can take care to ensure that your athlete’s foot does not continue to spread and to ease any discomfort it may cause.

It’s important to make sure your feet stay cool, dry, and clean to stop an infection from worsening.

Look at the list in the “Prevention” section for some best practices.

You can also try home remedies—such as tea tree oil or herbal foot baths—for your condition. 

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication: There are a variety of effective antifungal medications for athlete’s foot that can be purchased at your local pharmacy, available in the form of creams, sprays, gels, ointments, and powders, all of which should be applied topically.

The main fungus-fighting ingredients in these medications include miconazole, clotrimazole, terbinafine, and tolnaftate.

You should continue using these medications for a week after the infection clears up in order to ensure that your athlete’s foot does not return.

Prescription medication: Your healthcare provider may prescribe you an oral antifungal medicine and/or topical cream to help kill the fungus.

It’s important to finish your full course of prescribed medicine in order to ensure that your athlete’s foot does not return.

How Long Does Athlete’s Foot Last? 

As previously mentioned, athlete’s foot won’t go away on its own.

However, with the proper treatment, symptoms should begin to subside after a couple of weeks, though it can take a month or longer for the fungus to finally disappear.

If you do get it to go away completely, there’s also a chance that it’ll come back—whether it be days, weeks, or months later. 

Concerned about athlete’s foot? Chat with a provider through K Health.

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When To See a Medical Provider 

With the proper self-care and over-the-counter medication, athlete’s foot will typically resolve after a week or two. 

However, you should see a medical provider as soon as possible under the following two conditions

  • Your symptoms do not go away after two weeks, despite proper self-care and OTC treatment
  • Your foot is swollen, hot to the touch, has red streaks, or is in extreme pain, and/or you have pus, drainage, or a fever (these can all be signs of a bacterial infection)

If your athlete’s foot returns over and over again—or begins spreading to other parts of your body—you should also consider seeing a medical provider. 

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

How do you get rid of athlete's foot fast?
There’s no way to get rid of athlete's foot instantly. But treating it aggressively as soon as you notice it can help stop it in its tracks before it spreads any further. This treatment can include self-care, over-the-counter treatments, and/or prescription medication.
What is the best cure for athlete's foot?
The best cure for athlete's foot is treating it quickly and efficiently using a combination of self-care and medication. Over the counter medications are quick and effective treatments for most people.
What does athlete's foot look like?
Athlete’s foot typically looks like cracked, peeling, flaky skin in between the toes or on other parts of the foot. The affected skin can also change color, become thicker, swell up, and develop blisters.
What will happen if athlete's foot is left untreated?
Athlete’s foot will not go away on its own, so if left untreated the fungus will continue to grow and spread. After infecting the feet, the infection can spread to the toenails and even other places on the body, like the hands or groin. Though rare, the fungal infection can also lead to a more serious bacterial infection.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Nena Luster DNP, MBA, FNP-BC

Nena Luster is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 14 years of experience including emergency medicine, urgent care, and family practice.