Athlete’s Foot

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Running around barefoot has always been a controversial habit, according to some folks. Some people say it is not a good idea, because it can expose you to all kinds of germs, and this is certainly true to some extent. However, like most things in life, this is not a black-and-white statement. It appears that sometimes, especially in the case of Athlete’s Foot, going barefoot can actually protect us from infection. I guess it all depends on which organism that is trying to latch onto us for a free lunch.

What is Athlete’s Foot?

Athlete’s foot is a contagious fungal infection most often found between the toes that causes the skin to become sore and itchy, and results in painful cracking and peeling. It is actually a form of ringworm that specifically attacks the feet, and is officially known as tinea pedis(“tinea” meaning a type of fungus, and “pedis” being the Latin word for “foot”). Athlete’s foot is a very persistent and stubborn infection that can be difficult to completely stamp out. It gets its name because the fungus that causes it likes to live and grow in warm, moist atmospheres such as those found in locker rooms, shower stalls, and health clubs, and thus is often a problem for folks such as athletes who are often in such environments.

Athlete’s foot is also a very common malady. Mostly everyone will develop at least one athlete’s foot infection at some point in his or her lifetime. It affects both men and women, but is most common in adult men. It can afflict children under the age of 12, but it is relatively rare in that age group. There are similar skin conditions that resemble athlete’s foot, and most of the time when young children appear to have it, it is usually another similar condition.

Ringworm is one of the most common of all fungal infections, and there are a few “kissing cousins” of athlete’s foot that are also very common skin conditions. These include:

  • Tinea corporis (ringworm of the body)
  • Tinea cruris (commonly known as “jock itch”)
  • Tinea capitis (ringworm of the scalp, which is very common amongst children)

Athlete’s foot can spread to other parts of the body (such as those listed above) if patients are not careful.

Most athlete’s foot is caused by one of three fungi:

  • Trichophyton rubrum
  • Trichophyton mentagrophytes
  • Epidermophyton floccosum

These “bugs” are rather unique, in that they feed exclusively on dead tissue, such as skin cells, hair, and toe nails. It is also rather particular about what parts of the foot it likes to attack. Athlete’s foot is most often experienced, at least initially, on the webs between the fourth and fifth toes. In addition to warm, moist areas such as shower stalls and pool areas, these fungi also thrive in tight, poorly ventilated shoes, especially if the wearer is wearing synthetic socks that do not absorb perspiration well, or even no socks at all. Athlete’s foot is almost never found in cultures where people go barefoot most of the time. Sometime, it seems, shoes can do more harm than good.

How Does Athlete’s Foot Spread?

The fungi that cause athlete’s foot were always thought by many to be very contagious, but recent research indicates that while they are contagious, the situation is not as bad as legend would have it. Many folks have the fungi on their skin and act as carriers, but never develop any symptoms. Studies have shown that it usually takes more than just walking over an area where the bugs are present to get athlete’s foot. It seems that certain folks are more susceptible to the infection than others. Perhaps a break in the skin, or a weakness in the immune system is what makes the difference. The research is continuing into the specifics of that issue. But one thing we do know: Once the athlete’s foot infection has a foothold (no pun intended), it can be a very stubborn opponent, and can become a chronic problem that some folks have a hard time getting rid of.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Athlete’s Foot?

As with many medical conditions, signs will vary from person to person, both in type and degree. However, athlete’s foot is marked by several telltale signs that often accompany it. The most common ones include:

  • The “flagship” sign of athlete’s foot, and the one that makes it most distinguishable from other disease conditions of the foot, is the burning, itching, and stinging between the toes, especially between the last two toes (fourth and fifth).
  • Itchy blisters that may ooze and seep fluid in advanced cases.
  • Excessively dry and cracked skin in and near the area of infection. This is most common between the toes and on the soles of the feet.
  • Very dry skin, especially on the bottoms and sides of the feet
  • Toe nails that become crumbly, discolored, and ragged as the infection progresses to attack them. Eventually the nails will begin to pull away from their beds. These toenail infections can be even more difficult to get rid of than the original infection.

Doesn’t sound very pretty, does it? Well, it’s not. Most people’s feet are not all that beautiful to begin with, but athlete’s foot can make your feet quite unsightly, and this can be very embarrassing to some folks.

The way these aggressive fungal agents attack is by initially lodging themselves into the dead skin and hair cells of the outermost layer of skin. They then sprout tentacle-like extensions that begin to reach down into the deeper layers of the skin. The body responds by causing the basal layers of skin to produce an abnormal amount of new skin cells. As they surface, the skin of your foot becomes thick and scaly, which in turn provides more dead skin cells for the fungi to feed on. This creates a vicious cycle that perpetuates a “ring” of continually advancing infection (hence the term “ringworm.”)

Are There Risk Factors That Increase the Likelihood of Getting Athlete’s Foot?

Yes, there most definitely are. Certain environments are very friendly to these fungi, so it pays to take some precautions if you don’t want to pick up any fungal hitchhikers.

  • Be very careful in any public setting that is warm and moist, such as a locker room, or common shower area at a school or health club, for example. The fungi cannot survive long without a food source, but the surfaces of these breeding grounds, such as the floor of a shower stall, are often littered with fragments of dead skin that can keep the fungi alive and active.
  • The fungi can also live in floor mats, towels, bedding, and linens, so watch out for these potential hot spots as well. It is not a good idea to share a towel with anyone, even at home among your own family.
  • Make sure you never wear shoes that are very tight and do not easily provide ventilation. Plastic shoes are the worst. And it is also advised to never wear shoes without socks.
  • Speaking of socks, natural cotton ones are the best. Avoid synthetic materials, and change your socks often, especially if you are sweating while wearing them.
  • In some cases, although the incidence is relatively rare, athlete’s foot can be passed from personal contact with an infected person. For example, if your spouse is infected, you can get it just by the body contact that occurs while sleeping together.

Are There Possible Complications That Can Occur From Athlete’s Foot?

Yes, there are a couple of potential ones that you should be aware of. These include:

  • Secondary bacterial infections:  Occasionally an athlete’s foot infection will lead to a bacterial infection that can coincide with it. The way this occurs is actually quite interesting. Sometimes the original fungal infection will produce an antibiotic substance that will eliminate certain bacterium that are present on the foot. When this happens, the hardier bacteria that survive will begin to thrive, and can produce a stubborn foot infection of their own. These bacterial infections can be quite nasty, producing “soggy skin,” which is due to the erosion of the tissues by these aggressive bacteria. They can be quite painful and destructive, especially between the toes.
  • Allergic blisters:  This particular condition is rare, but when it does occur it can be quite troublesome. Sometimes, usually after an athlete’s foot infection has run its course, certain proteins that were associated with the infection can enter the bloodstream. These may cause what is called adermatophytid reaction, which in plain English means that allergic blisters may form on your hands, fingers, and/or toes.

What is The Best Way to Treat Athlete’s Foot?

As you might suspect, there are a number of commercial products, both over-the-counter and prescription medicines, that are available for the treatment of athlete’s foot. Most of these are relatively harmless, and are basically antifungal agents in the form of topical creams, lotions, or powders. They usually work pretty well, and can help get a case under control.

More difficult cases are sometimes prescribed oral medications. Be very careful of these. There is one in particular called oral itraconazole that can have some very dangerous side effects. This drug has been linked to liver failure and death in some patients. It is also a danger for anyone with heart disease. However, a short course, is usually very beneficial under they watchful eye of your doctor.

Other than the typical allopathic remedies, there are a couple of alternative remedies that have had a great track record at helping lots of folks with athlete’s foot:

  • Try a cinnamon footbath. This treatment has been clinically proven to reduce the growth of the fungal agents that cause athlete’s foot, and other fungal and mold infestations as well. Take about 8-10 broken cinnamon sticks and place them in about four cups of water. Simmer for about five minutes, and then allow the mixture to steep for about 45 minutes, or until cool enough. Soak your itchy feet and enjoy.
  • Tea tree oil can also be soothing and encourage healing of athlete’s foot infections. Rub some directly on the affected areas. If it seems to be too strong, it can be diluted with another oil or with water. Tea tree oil has wonderful healing and restorative properties.

The best course of action when it comes to athlete’s foot is to take cautions to prevent it if at all possible. It is not a pleasant disease to have to deal with, and can take quite a long time to be totally rid of it. Many of us take our foot health for granted, and don’t appreciate how much we depend on these hard-working parts of our bodies until a problem such as athlete’s foot develops.

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