Athlete's Foot

What is athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot is a fungal skin infection usually caused by one of two organisms: Trichophyton rubrum or Trichophyton interdigitale. You may also hear these organisms referred to as dermatophytes. The scientific term for athlete's foot is tinea pedis.

What are the symptoms of athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot causes scaling of the skin in between the toes. It usually causes itching (sometimes severe) and it can be painful. The fungi that cause athlete's foot can be found on floors and in clothing, especially socks and shoes. The fungi can be spread from person to person by contact with an infected area but will only grow in warm, moist areas. Keeping feet clean and dry will prevent fungi from growing.

If the skin between the toes actually breaks, bacteria can cause a secondary infection in the area. This is more likely to occur in people with diabetes, those with impaired immune systems, or the elderly.

If a bacterial infection occurs, there will be redness and swelling. If this happens you should make an appointment to see your doctor as antibiotic treatment may be necessary.

What treatment is available?

Athlete's foot is usually treated with antifungal creams, powders or sprays which can be obtained on prescription or purchased over the counter from a pharmacist. Treatment is usually continued for up to four weeks although the infection may seem to have disappeared before this.

Various antifungal creams and sprays containing clotrimazole, econazole, griseofulvin, ketoconazole, miconazole or terbinafine are available to buy over the counter. 

If the infection is accompanied by inflammation a cream containing both an antifungal and a topical steroid may be used. Currently the only combination preparation available over the counter for this indication is Daktacort® HC (miconazole + hydrocortisone). Canesten® HC (clotrimazole + hydrocortisone) can only be obtained on prescription.

Other antifungal creams (eg, those containing nystatin) are available on prescription.

In some cases oral tablets or capsules containing an antifungal (fluconazole, griseofulvin, itraconazole or terbinafine) may be prescribed for athlete's foot.

Self-help measures

  • Keep your feet clean and dry to prevent recurrence of athlete's foot. Medicated foot powders may help.
  • Wear shoes made of breathable fabric such as canvas or leather - vinyl can cause feet to remain moist encouraging fungi to breed.
  • Wear cotton socks rather than socks made of nylon or other synthetic materials because their absorbency helps feet to remain dry.

Fact sheet provided by MIMS

Date last reviewed: May 2014

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