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Athlete’s foot is the most common fungal infection, so common that as many as 70% of people will suffer an episode at least once in their lives and up to ¼ of adults have it at any time. Athlete’s foot got its name because the fungi that cause it to thrive in warm, damp areas frequented by athletes like showers, lockers rooms, and around swimming pools are often infected with fungi since the areas are warm and damp. But athletes aren’t the only ones who get athlete’s foot. It is easily spread from contact with contaminated surfaces or from the affected area of someone who is infected. “Not everyone who contracts the fungus will become infected,” says Dr. John Troccoli of Advanced Dermatology, P.C. in NYC. “The fungus needs the right conditions to flourish but when it does take hold, it can be difficult to eliminate. Also, having it once increases the likelihood of having it again. That’s why it’s important to understand how to prevent contracting the fungus.”
Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) is characterized by itchy, peeling skin anywhere on the foot but most commonly between the fourth and fifth toes. The infected skin may crack, blister and burn as the infection gets worse and may spread to the toenails. The fungi that cause athlete’s foot, known as dermatophytes, grow on non-living tissue, such as the nails, hair and outer layer of skin. They thrive in moist, dark, damp, poorly ventilated places – like the inside of shoes. “The primary strategy in preventing athlete’s foot is to deprive the fungus of the environment it likes best,” says Dr. Fox. “Good personal hygiene and simple precautions can prevent the infection and reduce the risk of spreading or recurrence.”
Some people are more susceptible to athlete’s foot than others. It is more common in men than in women and is rare in children under 15. Susceptibility may increase with age and people with sweaty feet, a history of diabetes, regular infections, or a weakened immune system are also more vulnerable.
Not all rashes on the foot are athlete’s foot. And there are different forms of athlete’s foot whose symptoms vary. It is best to obtain a definitive diagnosis from a dermatologist who will perform a physical examination and may look at skin scrapings under a microscope or take a culture. Simple cases generally respond well to anti-fungal creams and sprays. Oral anti-fungal medication may be prescribed if topical applications fail to eliminate the infection. “It’s important to complete the entire course of prescribed treatment even if symptoms have abated,” Dr. Fox says. “Failure to do so may enable the infection to flourish and make it harder to eliminate and more likely to spread to other parts of the body or to other people.”
“Athlete’s foot is a troublesome and tenacious ailment,” Dr. Fox concludes. “Conscientious adherence to hygienic practices can prevent it and prompt treatment can reduce its severity.”