We’re a week away from the March Madness basketball tournament, where amazing athletes from 68 teams battle it out on the court to make it to the Final Four—or further! But many athletes, and regular folks too, fight a formidable foe in the locker room and other moist areas: athlete’s foot.

The itchy fungal infection affects between 3 and 15 percent of us,1 and is very contagious. The scaly rash makes itself known with prickling, burning, and the intense desire to itch. This can be bothersome because—as the name would imply—the infection is on the foot, usually beginning between the toes. To keep yourself out of this stinging situation, read more about the condition and ways to prevent its spread.

Watching out—but where?

The fungus that causes athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis, thrives in wet, moist, or damp areas, explains David Harrison, MD, medical director and VP of clinical quality for Teladoc Health. “Locker rooms at the gym are common breeding grounds for athlete’s foot, as well as swimming pools, steam rooms, and shared showers,” he explains, noting that the organisms love humid environments.

But beware: Exposure is not limited to damp tile floors, he adds. “Since the condition is so contagious, it can easily spread to clothing, towels, or can even begin inside sweaty sneakers.”

That’s right, shoes and socks are common homes for the fungus that causes athlete’s foot, especially if they are tight-fitting or have poor ventilation. As shoes, socks, and feet turn damp and remain warm, the infection can develop and thrive.

An athlete’s foot infection can also reach to your toenails, which can be more persistent and tough to treat. It can spread to your fingernails if you touch or pick at itchy feet, or even your groin area. Jock itch is actually caused by the same type of fungus that causes athlete’s foot.

Prevention first

Athlete’s foot can happen to anyone, not just sports lovers. The good news is, there are steps you can take to protect your feet, and other parts of your body, too. If you’re going to walk around in public areas—especially moist areas like spas, saunas, pools, locker rooms, or hotel bathrooms—wear sandals or flip-flops, taking care to step only on them while getting dried or dressed.

Don’t share other people’s towels, clothes, bed sheets, or shoes,2 especially those that are damp or unclean or if you have reason to think they have an infection. Also, disinfect tubs and showers before use if you think they could be contaminated. Put on socks first when getting dressed, Dr. Harrison suggests, so you don’t spread the infection to other areas.

Do your best to maintain clean dry feet through the day, Dr. Harrison also recommends. If you’re a “sweater,” change socks twice a day, and wash, dry, and powder feet regularly. Look for “breathable,” natural materials in socks and shoes:3 Go with a mesh-blend sneaker rather than a rubber, plastic, or vinyl boot. Try to alternate pairs of shoes for different activities or on different days so they have a chance to air out.

My feet itch: Now what?

If the skin on your feet is itchy, scaly, peeling, cracked, and irritated, you could have athlete’s foot. Some cases can be treated at home with an over-the-counter antifungal lotion, powder, or spray, but a prescription treatment may be better. You should also confirm what kind of infection you have: the condition may be mistaken for other skin problems, so it’s best to consult with a doctor before treatment.

Our U.S. board-certified physicians—including dermatologists—are at your service to recommend the best path of care. Athlete’s foot can sometimes lead to more serious swelling, blisters, ulcers, or come along with a bacterial infection. It can also recur, and be resistant to certain treatments. Reach us by phone, video, internet, or mobile device anytime so we can help you sort this situation out.

References

1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279549/
2https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/athletes-foot/symptoms-causes/syc-20353841
3https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/contagious-skin-diseases/athlete-s-foot-how-to-prevent

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