Athlete’s Foot – Not Just For Athletes

Athlete’s foot is one of those conditions that’s more gross and nasty than debilitating, although it may seem like a serious annoyance. Like a monster in a bad science fiction film, the fungus that causes athlete’s foot (the tinea fungus) lives off of human flesh, quite literally. It tends to thrive in damp, dark places, like the inside of your shoe (particularly when your feet are sweaty). And, despite the name, it doesn’t affect just athletes (although they may be particularly susceptible because of sweaty feet and shared locker rooms and showers).

In fact, Kay (names have been changed to protect the . . . health information – google HIPPA) a 60 year old patient of mine, came in complaining of itchiness between her toes.  Athlete’s foot is likely to be spread by contact with contaminated damp surfaces, such as those found in locker rooms, showers and swimming pools. Kay mentioned that she had been swimming at the YMCA.  Wearing shoes in such areas, or washing and drying feet immediately after contact, will help prevent infection. The fungus also likes Kay’s feet because they were getting nice and sweaty, so drying off her feet and changing her socks and shoes frequently will help the fungus feel decidedly not at home, keeping it from hanging around.

The fungus that causes Kay’s athlete’s foot usually causes a burning or itching sensation in the affected area (which is often, although not always in the feet). The skin is likely to become dry and scaly, and as the conditions worsened, may become reddened and develop painful blisters. The fungus will often show up on the sole of the foot (although it may occur in other areas as well), and will sometimes spread to the areas between the toes and even into the toenails, making the nails brittle and yellow. Adding insult to injury, bacteria may take advantage of your foot’s weakened state and cause an infection.

To determine if you have athlete’s foot, I will often inspect the foot visually, checking for the symptoms listed above. I may also scrape the skin to see if the fungus grows from a culture, or may check the sample under a microscope. (However, cultures might take up to three weeks to grow, so there isn’t always a quick 100% sure diagnosis.)

Getting rid of this clingy fungus usually involves a couple of different methods: discouraging it from growing by making conditions less pleasant for it, and using medication to kill it. I told Kay that she should take measures such as making sure to dry her feet thoroughly after they become wet and changing her socks or shoes frequently to prevent a damp environment from forming around her feet. Luckily Kay had a fairly mild case and so I did not have to prescribe medication (or an effective over-the-counter meds) to combat and kill the fungus itself. Such medications often take the form of creams, powders or sprays, although an oral anti-fungal medication may be the most effective at getting rid of a deep-seated fungal infection. I also warned her that fungus is like a weed the garden.  Even though the weed is picked it can always come back and very likely will unless some of the treatments prescribed are continued described above.

Stick with it, Kay, and you may be able to say a permanent (or at least lengthy) goodbye to your unwelcome fungal visitors.