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Athlete's foot

Athlete’s foot is a very common fungal skin infection. It affects men, women and children, and (despite its name) anyone can contract it, not just athletes!

Athlete’s foot symptoms are predominantly seen on the skin in-between your toes, but can also occur on the soles or sides of the feet.

Common signs are:

  • White patches in the toe web-spaces
  • Red and flaky patches of skin on the feet, which can be sore
  • Skin that can crack and bleed
  • Itching of the skin

Athlete’s foot can cause small blisters on the skin, but this is rare.
Sometimes, if athlete's foot is not treated, the fungus can spread to cause infection in the toenails. When this happens, a fungal nail infection develops which needs separate treatment.

Athlete’s foot can be more problematic in those with an impaired immune system (as the body finds it harder to fight off the fungal infection) or in people with diabetes.

Athlete’s foot is caused by a fungus. Funguses tend to thrive in warm, moist environments – and so the spaces between your toes is perfect. The risk of developing it increases if a humid environment is created – i.e. if your feet are damp or sweaty when putting on shoes and socks.

Athlete’s foot is infectious, so it can pass easily between family members. You can also catch it from walking barefoot on floors that have been contaminated by the fungus, by sharing towels, socks or shoes with someone who already has the fungus. It can also be caught from swimming pools or saunas where there have been recent cases.

Athlete’s foot should be treated with an antifungal agent. These come in various forms – such as creams, sprays, or powders – and are available ‘over-the-counter’. A pharmacist would be able to help you find a good option for your individual case, and they usually take a few weeks to work.

It’s also important to ensure good foot hygiene and care to both treat athlete’s foot, and prevent it coming back once you’ve successfully treated it. To do this, make sure you:

  • Dry your feet thoroughly after washing them, particularly the spaces in between your toes
  • Wear clean socks every day (a breathable material is best)
  • Avoid wearing shoes when you’re at home
  • Leave your shoes to dry out completely before wearing them again (particularly if your feet are prone to sweating)

Wearing flip-flops in public areas when in changing rooms or swimming pools, and avoiding the sharing of towels, may also help prevent you catching the fungus.

You should definitely discuss your symptoms with a GP if:

  • You’ve been using an over-the-counter cream for several weeks and seen no improvement
  • Your infection is causing you pain or preventing you carrying out your normal daily activities
  • Your foot develops a rash that’s very red, hot to the touch, tender or discharging fluid - this can be a sign of an secondary skin infection which needs other treatment
  • You have diabetes (as foot-care is very important part and you may require stronger treatment)
  • You have a weakened immune system (for instance, are undergoing chemotherapy or are taking immune-suppressing drugs)

In very rare cases, the input from a dermatologist is needed. If this is the case, a GP would be able to organise a referral for you.

Last updated:
28 Oct 2020
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP, Livi