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Athlete’s foot: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read
Person wearing studded blue trainers, tying shoelaces on running pitch background.

Learn about the common fungal infection, athlete's foot, and its causes, symptoms, and treatments in this helpful guide.

What causes athlete's foot?

Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that affects the toes and feet. Both adults and children can contract athlete’s foot. It’s also contagious, meaning it can easily spread from person to person. The fungus that causes the infection thrives in warm, damp conditions so it can be picked up in public areas like swimming pools and shower rooms. Other factors that can lead to developing athlete’s foot include not thoroughly drying your feet before wearing socks and shoes, poorly ventilated shoes and trainers, sweaty feet, and sharing towels, shoes, or socks with other people.

What are the symptoms of athlete’s foot?

If you’ve experienced athlete’s foot, you’ll most likely be familiar with the intense itching that can occur around the affected area. Milky white patches of skin between the toes are a common symptom, and these patches can flake off and leave new, tender skin exposed. You might experience discomfort as the affected areas can crack and bleed, making them painful to touch. If left untreated, athlete’s foot can spread to other areas of the body including the toenails and resulting in a fungal nail infection.

What treatments are available for athlete’s foot?

The recommended treatment for athlete’s foot is an antifungal medicine. These come in different forms including:

  • Powders

  • Sprays

  • Creams

Many antifungal medicines can be purchased from a pharmacy shop without needing a prescription from your GP. Each product will include a patient information leaflet with instructions on how to use it, and who it’s for – for example whether it is suitable for children. If you take regular medication, we’d advise checking with the pharmacist or your doctor before using an antifungal treatment.

How can I prevent athlete’s foot?

Although athlete’s foot is common and rarely causes any serious health complications, it can be irritating and uncomfortable. There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of developing it, including:

  • Using a separate, clean towel to properly dry your feet and in between your toes after washing

  • Alternating your shoes each day, so you don’t wear the same pair two days in a row

  • Giving your feet time to breathe by wearing flip flops or similar when you’re at home

  • Try to avoid going barefoot in public areas like swimming pool changing rooms by wearing flip flops

  • Consider using an antifungal shoe spray in your footwear to reduce the risk of reinfection

  • Continue a good footcare routine even when the infection has cleared to help prevent it reoccurring

When should I see a doctor?

Most athlete’s foot infections can be treated at home using the treatments outlined in this article. However, in some instances we’d advise speaking to your GP if:

  • You live with diabetes, as this can make foot conditions worse

  • You’re experiencing a lot of discomfort

  • The affected area is hot, swollen, and red (this could be a sign of a more serious infection)

  • The infection has spread to another area of your body like your hands or groin

  • Your immune system is compromised due to an existing health condition or you’re having treatment such as chemotherapy