Put your best foot forward

Published in Medicinewise Living

Date published: About this date

Keep your feet clean and dry. (Image: Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock.com)

We spend a lot of time and money selecting the perfect sports shoes. But, no matter how technologically advanced, your new footwear is probably going to end up the same way — filled with your hot, sweaty feet.

‘Athlete’s foot’ is a common fungal infection of the foot; so called because it thrives in the warm, moist darkness of sports shoes, and is typically transmitted in wet communal areas where people walk barefoot, such as showers, gym changing rooms and bathhouses. Also called tinea pedis, it is caused by a group of fungi called dermatophytes, which can affect other parts of the body too (e.g. ‘jock itch’). It is also sometimes called ringworm because it can appear as ring-shaped, scaly patches on the body.

Do your feet itch?

The symptoms of athlete’s foot vary, but commonly include:

  • itchy and stinging feet, particularly between the toes
  • a red, scaly rash
  • flaky, dry skin
  • splitting of the skin between the toes.

Foot fitness matters

Athlete’s foot is usually a mild infection, but you should treat it as soon as you develop symptoms.

  • Athlete’s foot is contagious. Because it’s spread by skin-to-skin contact as well as contact with contaminated items (e.g. towels, shoes, change room floors), there is a good chance you’ll spread it to other parts of your body, or to other people, if you don’t treat it.
  • Although rare, you can develop complications from athlete’s foot, including blisters, bleeding, nail infections, bacterial infections and cellulitis (an infection of the skin and deep underlying tissues).
  • It may seem harmless to you, but it can have serious consequences for the elderly and people with diabetes, HIV or other immune system problems who are more likely to become seriously ill with fungal infections.

Treatment is simple

NPS Medicines Line pharmacist, Janet Gaon, explains that in most cases athlete’s foot can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal medicine from your pharmacy.

“Antifungal creams applied directly to the skin are preferred for treating infections as they are less likely to cause unpleasant side effects or interact with other medicines than oral medicines are,” she explains.

Medicines such as miconazole (Daktarin), clotrimazole (Canesten) and terbinafine (Lamisil) are available from the pharmacist as a cream that you apply directly to the affected areas of your feet. When applying antifungal cream, make sure you:

  • thoroughly clean and dry the affected area before you apply the cream
  • also apply the cream to the skin around the affected area. This is because dermatophytes (fungi) can sometimes exist on the skin without causing any symptoms
  • use the cream for as long as recommended in the instructions and for two weeks after the symptoms have disappeared. This will make sure that all dermatophytes have been killed.

“It is important for antifungal treatments that are applied to the skin to be continued for two weeks after symptoms resolve and follow good hygiene measures to prevent recurrence of infection,” adds Ms Gaon.

Some antifungal medicines are also available in lotion, solution, spray or powder form. Your pharmacist can advise which one is suitable for your needs (e.g. antifungal powder can be applied to the inside of your shoes).

Athlete’s foot typically only lasts for a few days or weeks if treatment is started as soon as you notice symptoms. However, if it doesn’t go away, see your doctor — you may have another skin condition. Antifungal tablets, antibiotics, or corticosteroid cream can be prescribed by your doctor if this is the case.

Prevention is better than cure

Top tips for preventing athlete’s foot:

Keep your feet dry

  • Always dry your feet thoroughly, particularly between your toes, and remove your sweaty sports socks and shoes after exercise.
  • Wearing sweaty shoes and socks or putting your socks or stockings on moist feet creates the perfect environment for athlete’s foot to develop.
  • Wear cotton socks instead of synthetic ones, avoid tight-fitting shoes, and expose your feet to the air as much as possible (e.g. wear open-toed shoes).

Keep your feet clean

  • Wash and dry your feet thoroughly every day, particularly between your toes.
  • Alternating footwear (i.e. don’t wear the same shoes everyday) will help your feet stay clean and dry.
  • Change your socks and stockings daily and wash your towels and bedding frequently.
  • Wear thongs to swimming pools, locker rooms, gyms and other communal areas to avoid picking up the fungus.
  • Tinea dermatophytes can sometimes make a permanent home inside the shoes of people with chronic athlete’s foot; so consider cleaning, treating or discarding your old, sweaty shoes if your infection keeps coming back.

Keep it to yourself

  • Wash your hands after touching infected areas and avoid scratching, as athlete’s foot can be easily spread to other parts of the body, including the scalp, toe- and fingernails, and the groin (‘jock itch’).
  • Don’t share towels, shoes or socks, and clean the shower and bathroom floor after use so you don’t leave any dermatophytes behind to infect others.
  • Even better, don’t walk around barefoot with this infection. Wear thongs at the pool, in locker rooms, gyms and other communal areas to help prevent the spread of this infection.