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Athlete's Foot

Don't let the name fool you. Athletes aren't the only ones who get the itchy condition known as athlete's foot. Anyone can get athlete's foot if two things happen:

  1. Their bare feet are exposed to a kind of fungus.
  2. That fungus has the right environment to grow — like hot and sweaty sneakers!

A Fungus Is a Microorganism

Athlete's foot, or tinea pedis (say: tin-ee-uh peh-dus), is a common skin infection that is caused by a fungus (say: fun-gus), a plant-like microorganism (say: my-kro-or-guh-niz-um) too small to be seen by the naked eye. This fungus eats old skin cells. And plenty of them can be found on the feet!

Although athlete's foot occurs mostly among teen and young adult guys, kids and women can get it, too. People with sweaty or damp feet are at risk. Walking barefoot where others also walk barefoot is one way the fungus can get on your feet in the first place. That's why your mom or dad might say to wear your sandals when you're showering in a public shower.

athletes foot illustration

Why Is It Called Athlete's Foot?

Athlete's foot gets its name because athletes often get it. Why? The fungus that causes it can be found where athletes often are. The fungus grows on the warm, damp surfaces around pools, public showers, and locker rooms. People walk barefoot on these surfaces and fungus ends up on their feet. Or they might use a damp towel that has the athlete's foot fungus on it.

But just having the fungus on your feet isn't enough to cause the infection. The infection happens if conditions are right for the fungus to grow. The fungus likes it wet, so:

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Cases of athlete's foot can be mild to severe. A person who has it may have a rash that itches and burns. Other signs and symptoms include:

Athlete's foot may spread to other parts of your foot, including your toenails. It can also infect other parts of the body — such as the groin (commonly called jock itch) and underarms — but only if someone scratches the infection and touches these places.

What Will the Doctor Do?

A doctor — such as a dermatologist (say: dur-muh-tal-uh-jist), a skin doctor, or podiatrist (say: puh-dye-uh-trist), a foot doctor — can figure out if you have athlete's foot. It could be something other than athlete's foot, too. Kids can get other foot conditions or might be allergic to a material in the shoes they're wearing.

But a doctor will be able to tell by looking at the skin on your feet. Your doctor may swab or scrape off a skin sample to test for fungus or for bacteria. Don't worry, this won't hurt — you have lots of extra layers of skin on your feet!

Treatment is usually simple. For mild cases, your doctor may have you apply a powder that contains medicine or cream that kills fungus, which should make your feet feel better in a few days. Sometimes you'll need to use the medicine for up to a month to get rid of the athlete's foot completely.

You'll also need to keep your feet dry and keep your shoes off as much as possible because fungus can't easily grow in dry, open air. If doing these things doesn't help clear up the infection, your doctor may then prescribe a stronger medicine. This one will be the kind you swallow, not just something that you apply to your feet.

It's important to see a doctor about your athlete's foot because if it goes untreated, it will continue to spread, making your feet feel really itchy and uncomfortable and will become harder to get rid of. Also, more serious infections can also develop on your feet.

Athlete's Foot Prevention

Many people will develop athlete's foot at least once in their lives. Some will get it more often. To help avoid it:

Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011

Related Articles
K    Fungal Infections
K    Taking Care of Your Skin
K    What Are Germs?
K    What's Sweat?
K    Why Do Feet Stink?
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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