Athlete's Foot is a fungal infection of the foot. Athlete's Foot, scientifically known as Tinea pedis, belongs to a family of ringworms that invade different areas of the skin. Tinea capitis, for example, is ringworm of the scalp, whilst tinea cruris is ringworm of the groin, and so on.
One of the functions of the skin is to prevent the entry of harmful substances and pathogens. Many skin infections are caused by bacteria or yeasts (fungi) that are normally resident on the skin but get out of hand when the body's natural defence mechanisms are overcome. Athlete's Foot can be caused in this way, by the overgrowth of one's own fungi. Alternatively, it can be spread by contact with someone who has a fungal infection or by contact with contaminated surfaces (e.g. showers), bed sheets, towels or clothing. Scales are shed from an infected person and they cling to socks, shoes, towels and wet floors.
The common name, 'Athlete's Foot', arose from the preponderance of incidences of Tinea pedis amongst the sporting population. Hot, humid conditions predispose wearers of sweaty socks and constricting footwear to fungal colonisation. Furthermore, the use of communal showers and changing rooms is part and parcel of the sporting lifestyle, and these shared environments facilitate the rampant spread of infection.
Initially, Athlete's Foot attacks the web of skin between the 3rd and 4th toes. It may progress to other areas of the feet including the soles and the heels. When the infection is between the toes, it manifests, initially, as soggy scaling. Later the skin becomes white and softens and breaks down, particularly if the patient wears socks and shoes continually. Peeling and itching may occur, in some cases, to the point of bleeding. These moist, compromised conditions can be an ideal environment for secondary infection. Various bacteria, e.g. Streptococci, may establish causing weeping and a bad smell.
Athlete's Foot affecting the soles and heels of the foot usually presents as a dry diffuse scaling of the sole.
As with any condition, your pharmacist should be consulted to diagnose and treat the condition, as far as possible, and refer you to a doctor if necessary. The infection needs to be distinguished from other skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis or bacterial infection. Severe Tinea infections may require treatment with prescription medications.
Your pharmacist may recommend a medicated cream to treat uncomplicated Athlete's Foot. Medicated creams should be applied twice daily. Always apply medication at least 3cm beyond the advancing edge of the lesion. This is because fungi shed spores and these are deposited around the affected area. If left untreated, these spores can develop into more infection. Furthermore, since these spores tend to linger and are invisible, it is important to continue applying treatment creams for a further 10-14 days after all signs of the infection have cleared. Failure to comply with this regimen increases your chances of recurrence of infection.
A new treatment for Athlete's Foot, 'Lamisil Once', has recently become available to the Irish market. If you prefer a shorter treatment regimen, involving one single application, you may like to try this product as opposed to using a cream. It should be noted, however, that this product is only available to adults over 18 years of age and that it still may take up to four weeks for all signs of the infection to disappear.
If a Tinea infection is present, prevent a secondary infection (such as a bacterial infection) by keeping the area clean and as dry as possible. Along with the medicaments required to treat the active infection, a Tinea powder may be suggested because it not only helps to keep the area dry but it also contains a product to help control the Tinea. Powders may be dusted into socks and shoes.
- Wear flip-flops or sandals in communal showers (swimming pools, gyms etc.) to help avoid contracting Tinea. The fungus grows in damp areas and it is easy to become infected. Summer time, when the temperature is higher, is the worst time for Tinea.
- Always dry well the skin between the toes immediately after a bath or shower. If you have frequent recurrences of Tinea infection, you might also dust feet with a Tinea powder . Only wear breathable cotton socks and wear no shoes when possible to allow the skin to breathe.
- Change socks and underwear after exercise or sweating. Use powder in socks and runners to absorb excess perspiration. If you own a few pairs of runners, it is a good idea to rotate their use. After wearing one pair, dust the insides with Tinea powder and leave them to dry out for as many days as possible before wearing this pair again.
- Where Athlete's Foot causes itching, scratching should be avoided at all costs. Fingernails should be kept short and extra attention paid to hygiene to avoid the spread of the infection to the hands.
- Keep floors as clean as possible. The fungal infection has been isolated in house dust of those who suffer from Tinea.
- Support the immune system with a varied diet incorporating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, unsweetened yoghurt and whole grains. Avoid excess sugar and refined products, which can predispose to fungal colonisation.
- Tea tree oil is known for its antifungal and antibacterial properties. Bathe your feet in a solution of water (1litre) to tea tree oil (10 drops) daily.
- Ordinary washing powder does not kill the Tinea fungus although washing in very hot water will. Socks should be cleansed with a suitable disinfectant in the water to prevent re-infection.
Take the right steps this summer to looking after your feet!