Despite the name, athlete’s foot is not just for big, sweaty football, basketball, or soccer players. It’s a highly contagious problem that can attack anyone’s feet. It can disrupt daily life with scratching and make simply having feet uncomfortable. Thankfully it doesn’t have to be a pain—it’s easy to treat and easy to prevent.

The Culprit: What is Athlete’s Foot?

Athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis, is a fungal infection of the skin. It’s caused by a type of fungi similar to mold, called dermatophytes. It is the most common of the fungal infections and is both easy to catch and to spread. The fungi thrive in warm, damp environments and can be picked up from infected surfaces, as well as direct contact with the skin of an affected person. The good news is that athlete’s foot is easy to deal with, and can often be cured with over-the-counter antifungal medication.

The Danger Zone: Where Can I Get Infected?

Any warm, moist areas, especially if they are enclosed or have very little fresh air flow, are breeding grounds. This makes pool decks, locker rooms, public restrooms, saunas, gyms, and communal baths or showers high-risk places for growing and spreading the fungus to the bare feet of unsuspecting passers-by. Once on your skin, your footwear can either foster or limit its production. If your shoes limit airflow to your feet, trap sweat, or squeeze your toes together, you’re more likely to create the conditions for growth and infection.

The Symptoms: How Do I Know I Have It?

Athlete’s foot usually creates a burning, itching, or stinging sensation between the toes, on the soles, or on the sides of the feet. It can also develop itchy blisters, excessive dryness on the bottom or sides of the feet, cracked or peeling skin—especially between toes and on the soles—or infected toenails. If you have a rash that doesn’t seem to be getting better, or even gets worse after using natural and over the counter remedies, contact a doctor. Our team at Advanced Foot and Ankle Specialists of Arizona can evaluate the state of a fungal infection and recommend the best treatment to eliminate it and help prevent recurrences.

The Complications: How Bad Can It Really Get?

It is possible, though rare, to develop a secondary infection. The fungus creates an environment that makes it easier for stronger bacteria to survive and invade the body. You could also have an allergic reaction, resulting in a break out of blisters. Sometimes the fungi can spread to the nails, causing a toenail infection. In rarer cases, the rash can go deeper and become something worse, or even spread to the hands if you don’t wash with soap and water right after contact with the infected area.

The Risks: How High Are My Chances of Getting It?

Men are more likely than women to develop an infection, though anyone who is exposed to the fungus is at risk. People who regularly wear damp socks, tight shoes, walk barefoot in public places, or have a weaker immune system, such as diabetics, have a greater chance of contracting athlete’s foot. Sharing items that you touch with your skin, especially with someone else who is infected, also significantly increases your probability of getting it yourself. This isn’t something your body develops a resistance for, so you can contract it multiple times.

The Cure: How Do I Treat This?

First, you should visit a podiatrist at Advanced Foot and Ankle Specialists of Arizona to determine if you really have athlete’s foot, or if it is a different skin infection. After the diagnosis is confirmed, our foot specialists can discuss your treatment options. Many over-the-counter medications are very effective. Doctors often recommend you try an ointment, lotion, spray, or powder from a local pharmacy first, and move to something prescription strength if those do not work. If your case of athlete’s foot is persistent, or you develop a secondary infection or fever, you may be given oral medication as well as topical antifungal treatments.

The Defense: How Do I Prevent This?

The best prevention is to keep your feet clean and dry. Change your socks every day—more throughout the day if your feet sweat a lot. Use socks made of natural materials, like cotton or wool that allow your feet to breathe. Synthetic materials designed to wick away moisture also help. Avoid shoes that cramp your feet, don’t allow air flow, or are made of synthetics like plastic, vinyl, and rubber. Protect your feet when walking in public places. Instead of going barefoot at the pool or in the locker room, use sandals or flip flops to limit contact with potentially infected surfaces.

Athlete’s foot doesn’t have to be a pain. It is easily treated and prevented. But if you do contract an infection, or are concerned you might have one now, don’t wait until it’s out of control to get help. Seek treatment and deal with your discomfort instead of suffering in silence.