What Causes Athlete's Foot?

Athlete's foot or tinea pedis is a fungal infection of the skin that mainly affects the feet. It gets its name from the fact that athletes often get it. Mitch Hedberg once said “I’m not into sports. If anybody ever told me I had athlete’s foot, I’d say that’s not my foot”, but sad for him, because this itchy condition can happen to anybody! Athlete’s foot occurs very commonly in people whose feet have become very sweaty while confined within tight-fitting shoes for long intervals of time.

What Causes Athlete’s Foot?


There are 2 types of fungi that can cause the condition.

  • Trichophyton mentagrophytes causes toe-web or vesicular (blister like) infections. The infection appears suddenly, is severe, and is easily treated.
  • The second type of fungi is called Trichophyton rubrum and causes moccasin-type infection. This condition lasts for a long time (chronic) and is difficult to treat.

There are 2 things that a fungus needs in order to grow and thrive – moisture and warmth. Sweaty feet wrapped up in suffocating shoes offer ample amounts of both.


People most commonly pick up the fungi from damp, contaminated surfaces, such as the floors of public showers or locker rooms. It is very contagious and you can get it not just by touching the affected region of an infected person, but also by using the person’s towels or soap. The infection can spread from one feet to the other and also to your hands (between fingers) especially if you scratch or pick at the infected parts.

Risk Factors

Now that we know what causes athlete’s foot, the risk factors are obvious.

  • Thick, tight shoes squeezing toes together provide the ideal conditions for the fungus to thrive.
  • Plastic shoes, which warm and moisten feet the most, are more likely to bring on athlete's foot quicker than those made from other materials such as leather or canvass.
  • Poor hygiene, including not washing feet properly and regularly or wearing dirty socks.
  • Leaving the feet moist after being in contact with water or keeping feet wet for long periods of time.
  • Having a history of being susceptible to fungal infections.
  • Aging. Athlete's foot is more common in older adults. Children seldom get it.
  • Share mats, rugs, bed linens, clothes, towels or shoes with someone who has a fungal infection.
  • Walk barefoot in public areas where the infection can spread, such as locker rooms, saunas, swimming pools, communal baths and showers.
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Being male

What Are the Symptoms of Athlete’s Foot?

Athlete’s foot is fairly easy to identify. The symptoms include itchy, scaly, red rash that develops between the toes. The itching is the worst when you just remove your shoes and socks.

  • The toe web type of infection makes the skin pale and moist. Itching, burning and a mild odour are obvious. As the infection worsens the skin becomes scaly and can crack and peel off.
  • The vesicular type causes blisters that can burst and ooze fluids. The blisters most often develop on the skin of the instep but may also develop between the toes, at the heel, on the sole or at the top of the foot. The moccasin variety of athlete's feet causes chronic dryness and scaling on the soles that extends all the way along the sides of the feet. It can be mistaken for eczema or even as dry skin.

How to Deal With Athlete’s Foot

Athlete’s foot might seem squeamishly scary, but is very much treatable. There are self-care things that can do, get OTC medicines, or consult a doctor. Upon realising what causes athlete’s foot, the best thing you could do is take measures to avoid and treat it.


  • Keep your feet clean and dry: Wear clean, absorbent socks made of natural fibers such as cotton, and change them during the day if your feet become moist or sweaty. Always opt for shoes that are breezy and avoid plastic ones.
  • Remove the insoles of shoes and sneakers, if possible, to allow them to dry out overnight. Dusting the inside of your shoes and socks with talcum powder or a medicated powder such as Desenex will help to decrease the moisture level.
  • Alternate between different pairs of shoes to allow them to dry out for a day or two at a time.

Medical Treatment

  • Over-the-counter antifungal creams are sufficient for treating most cases of athlete's foot. Apply them as directed to the toes and foot. Common brands include clotrimazole (Lotrimin) and tolnaftate (Tinactin).These creams should be used sparingly but regularly, at least once a day.
  • An oral antifungal medication will be prescribed if the topical antifungal medications do not clear up the infection.
  • If you plan to see your physician for a diagnosis or treatment of your athlete's foot, it would be advisable to stop using any antifungal medication for at least two weeks as it could inhibit an accurate diagnosis.
  • If you plan to visit a physician within the next month, the application of 1%hydrocortisone cream purchased over the counter would be an ideal therapeutic tactic. Since many of the causes of athlete's foot are not infections and may respond to this medication. Moreover, it will enhance your doctor's ability to find fungal organism should they be the cause.

To know more on what causes athlete’s foot, how it is spread, how it is treated and its preventive measures, check out the video: 


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