Athlete's Foot (Tinea Pedis)

Athlete's foot is a commonly occurring skin infection, primarily of the foot, but capable of spreading to other parts of the body, particularly the toe nails and other areas of the skin where the environment is moist. It is a fungus, a type of mold similar in its organic construction to yeast and mushrooms; fungi thrive in dark, warm, moist places, spreading through spores that may survive for up to two years.

There are more glamorous ailments to impact upon an athlete's ability to perform than the presence of microscopic fungal spores between the toes or that are attached to the crevices of the human foot. For many, athlete's foot is an irritant, something of an unpleasant rite of passage, especially in team sports where unhygienic communal locker rooms and shower facilities are a fact of life.

Athlete's foot will often first appear on the human foot between the toes, presenting as a red, itching patch of skin. The skin may develop a blister, leading to an increased risk of infection if the foot is not treated. In more advanced stages, athlete's foot causes a painful, burning sensation. The condition is highly contagious, easily spreading through contact to either other parts of the host skin, or to other persons who have contact with the fungal spores, often in communal areas or by the sharing of footwear.

A person suffering from the persistent itch of athlete's foot will tend to scratch the affected area. The spores that cause the athlete's foot infection to spread readily attach beneath the fingernails of the itching person. The particular places where the infection is most likely to spread are to the groin and the armpits, as these areas are similarly fungus friendly, being as warm and as moist environments as the foot. Athlete's foot has a similar biology to that of the infection known as "jock itch" (also known as tinea cruris), a fungus that will cause significant redness and itching on the surface of the male groin.

For most athletes, the athlete's foot infection is an irritant, as opposed to a debilitating injury. However, in most sports, any distraction caused by foot discomfort will undoubtedly detract from performance. Untreated, the infection will spread, first between the toes, and often to the skin on the top of each toe, with the potential of reaching the toenail. If a toenail becomes badly infected with the fungus, the athlete will experience considerable discomfort, and the toenail may have to be removed. As athletic shoes are designed to provide support to athletes during competition, the shoe will not alleviate the condition. Athlete's foot sufferers often find themselves in a situation where they are both distracted by the irritation and itching sensation of the foot, as well as experiencing an inability to put full pressure of the foot during running, throwing, kicking, or jumping movements.

The infection should be treated immediately upon the first observation of its symptoms. Most conditions will respond readily to a topical, commercially available fungicide, which is designed to kill the fungal spores. In cases where the infection is resistant to these medications, more powerful pharmaceuticals may be prescribed by a physician. As with all types of infection, the fungicide should continue to be applied after the symptoms such as skin redness and itching have disappeared, to ensure that the underlying fungal spores are destroyed.

An occurrence of athlete's foot, once successfully treated, does not create any form of permanent immunity from a later infection. Good foot hygiene, especially with respect to limiting contacts with the skin of other persons in public changing rooms, swimming pools, hot tubs, and other potentially warm, wet environments, is crucial in reducing the risk of contracting athlete's foot.

An effective foot hygiene regimen will include: daily washing of the feet with soap and hot water; careful drying of the feet with a towel, paying particular attention to the spaces between the toes, to eliminate a fungal environment; wearing dry shoes and socks, selecting types that are breathable and not tight fitting; never sharing shoes or socks; using foot powders or other drying agents; wearing shower sandals or other footwear in public showers or changing areas.

Diabetics must take particular care with respect to the thorough treatment of athlete's foot. Diabetes tends to weaken the human immune system, and the opening of foot sores caused by athlete's foot in an advanced stage may heighten the risk of a more serious infection entering the body through the openings.

SEE ALSO Athletic shoes; Foot: Anatomy and physiology.