Athlete's foot (tinea pedis) is a fungal infection that usually begins between the toes. It occurs most commonly in people whose feet have become very sweaty while confined within tight-fitting shoes.

Signs and symptoms of athlete's foot include a scaly rash that usually causes itching, stinging and burning. Athlete's foot is contagious and can be spread via contaminated floors, towels or clothing.

Athlete's foot is closely related to other fungal infections such as ringworm and jock itch. It can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal medications, but the infection often recurs. Prescription medications also are available.

Athlete's foot usually causes a scaly red rash that typically begins in between the toes. Itching is often the worst right after you take off your shoes and socks. Some types of athlete's foot feature blisters or ulcers. The moccasin variety of athlete's feet causes chronic dryness and scaling on the soles that extends up the sides of the feet. It can be mistaken for eczema or even as dry skin.

The infection can affect one or both feet and can spread to your hand — especially if you scratch or pick at the infected parts of your feet.

When to see a doctor

If you have a rash on your foot that doesn't improve within a few weeks after self-treatment, see your doctor. Seek medical advice sooner if you have diabetes and suspect you have athlete's foot or if you notice excessive redness, swelling, drainage or fever.

Athlete's foot is caused by the same type of fungus that causes ringworm and jock itch. Damp socks and shoes and warm, humid conditions favor the organisms' growth.

Athlete's foot is contagious and can be spread by contact with an infected person or from contact with contaminated surfaces, such as towels, floors and shoes.

You are at higher risk of athlete's foot if you:

  • Are a man
  • Frequently wear damp socks or tight-fitting shoes
  • Share mats, rugs, bed linens, clothes or shoes with someone who has a fungal infection
  • Walk barefoot in public areas where the infection can spread, such as locker rooms, saunas, swimming pools, communal baths and showers
  • Have a weakened immune system

Your athlete's foot infection can spread to other parts of your body, including:

  • Your hand. People who scratch or pick at the infected parts of their feet may develop a similar infection in one of their hands.
  • Your nails. The fungi associated with athlete's foot can also infect your toenails, a location that tends to be more resistant to treatment.
  • Your groin. Jock itch is often caused by the same fungus that results in athlete's foot. It's common for the infection to spread from the feet to the groin as the fungus can travel on your hands or on a towel.

Your family doctor or a skin specialist (dermatologist) can diagnose athlete's foot. You don't need any special preparations for an appointment to diagnose athlete's foot.

What you can do

Before your appointment, you might want to write down a list of questions to ask your doctor. Examples include:

  • What might be causing the signs and symptoms?
  • Are tests needed to confirm the diagnosis?
  • What is the best treatment?
  • Is this condition temporary or chronic?
  • Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
  • Can I wait to see if the condition goes away on its own?
  • What can I do to prevent the infection from spreading?
  • What skin care routines do you recommend while the condition heals?

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:

  • When did you first notice your symptoms?
  • What did the rash look like when it first started?
  • Is the rash painful or itchy?
  • What, if anything, makes it better?
  • What, if anything, makes it worse?
  • Does a family member also have athlete's foot?
  • Have you spent time at swimming pools, locker rooms, saunas or other places where athlete's foot might be spread?

In some cases, your doctor may be able to diagnose athlete's foot simply by looking at it. To help confirm the diagnosis and rule out other conditions, your doctor might:

  • Take skin scrapings or samples from the infected area and view them under a microscope
  • View your feet under black light from a Wood's light
  • Send a small sample of your skin to a lab to be tested

If your athlete's foot is mild, your doctor may suggest using an over-the-counter antifungal ointment, lotion, powder or spray. If your athlete's foot doesn't respond, you may need a prescription-strength medication to apply to your feet. Severe infections may require antifungal pills that you take by mouth.

These tips can help you avoid athlete's foot or ease the symptoms if infection occurs:

  • Keep your feet dry, especially between your toes. Go barefoot to let your feet air out as much as possible when you're home.
  • Change socks regularly. If your feet sweat a lot, change your socks when they get wet.
  • Wear light, well-ventilated shoes. Avoid shoes made of synthetic material, such as vinyl or rubber.
  • Alternate pairs of shoes. Don't wear the same pair every day so that you give your shoes time to dry between wearings.
  • Protect your feet in public places. Wear waterproof sandals or shower shoes in communal showers, pools, fitness centers and other public areas.
  • Treat your feet. Use powder, preferably antifungal, on your feet daily.
  • Don't share shoes. Sharing risks spreading a fungal infection.
Jan. 24, 2014