Although the words ringworm, jock itch, and athlete's foot may sound funny, if you have one of these skin infections, you're probably not laughing.
The good news is that tinea, the name for this category of common skin infections, is usually easy to treat. Read on to learn some fast facts about foot fungus.
The Basics on Tinea Infections
Tinea (pronounced: tin-ee-uh) is the medical name for a group of related fungal skin infections that affect the skin, nails, or scalp, including athlete's foot, jock itch, and ringworm (despite its name, ringworm is not a worm).
These infections are caused by several types of mold-like fungi called dermatophytes (pronounced: der-mah-tuh-fites) that live on the dead tissues of your skin, hair, and nails.
What Is Athlete's Foot?
The medical name for athlete's foot is tinea pedis. Usually, athlete's foot affects the soles of the feet and the areas between the toes, and it may also spread to the toenails. Athlete's foot can also spread to the palms of your hands, groin, or underarms if you touch your feet and then touch another area of your body.
Athlete's foot doesn't just aggravate athletes; anyone whose feet tend to be damp or sweaty can get this infection. The fungi that cause athlete's foot thrive in warm, moist environments.
The signs and symptoms of athlete's foot include itching, burning, redness, and stinging on the soles of the feet. The skin may flake, peel, blister, or crack.
Athlete's foot is contagious. It's often spread in damp areas, such as public showers or pool areas. To avoid getting athlete's foot, dry your feet — and the spaces between your toes — thoroughly after showering or swimming. Use a clean towel. (Avoid sharing towels because doing so can spread the infection.) If you use public showers, like those in the locker room, wearing waterproof shoes or flip-flops is a good way to protect your feet.
To keep your feet as dry as possible, try not to wear the same shoes or sneakers all the time, and don't wear socks that make your feet sweat or trap moisture. Cotton or wool socks are a good bet. You can also find socks made of special "moisture wicking" fabrics in many sports stores — these are designed to keep feet dry.
If possible, choose sneakers that are well ventilated — some sneakers contain small ventilation holes that help to keep your feet dry.
How Is Athlete's Foot Treated?
A doctor can often diagnose athlete's foot simply by examining the affected area. Your doctor may also take a small scraping of the skin on your foot. This sample is then examined under a microscope or sent to a laboratory for culture to see if the fungi that cause athlete's foot are present.
If you have athlete's foot, over-the-counter antifungal creams and sprays may solve the problem. Most mild cases of athlete's foot usually clear up within 2 weeks, but it is common for athlete's foot to recur (come back), so some people use medicated powders and sprays to prevent this from happening.
If an athlete's foot infection is more serious, it can take longer than a couple of weeks to get better. In these cases, it's a good idea to see your doctor, who may prescribe a stronger antifungal cream, spray, or pill.