Perhaps the skin in between your toes is itchy. Or the skin on the sides of your feet is flaking and irritated.
These are classic signs of athlete’s foot. Doctors call it tinea pedis and it’s a common fungal infection, affecting 15 to 25 percent of people at any one time.
“It’s flaky, dead skin overlying redness,” says Adam Friedman, a dermatologist at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Skin between the toes may look white and soggy, the soles of the foot are more likely to be dry and flaky, and reddening and blistering can appear anywhere.
Still, it might be something else; psoriasis and eczema can look a lot like athlete’s foot.
So how can you be sure you have athlete’s foot? Do you need to see a doctor?
Even when the itching and burning symptoms are very mild, the condition is unsightly. Also, the fungus can invade the nail — and nail fungus is much harder to treat, says Shari Lipner, a dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine.
But you don’t necessarily need to see a doctor. It’s OK to try an over-the-counter product on your own. Look for those that contain an antifungal medication such as terbinafine (Lamisil), clotrimazole (Lotrimin), tolnaftate (Tinactin), miconazole (Micatin), or undecylenic acid (Cruex). Other products, such as those containing tea tree oil or “natural” salts, have little evidence to back their use.
“Generally, we recommend treating for about a month,” Lipner says.
But if your symptoms don’t improve after a couple of weeks, you should probably see a doctor.
Dermatologists can diagnose athlete’s foot by taking fungal cultures or doing a two-minute in-office procedure, called a potassium hydroxide (KOH) test. The fungi involved are usually one of two species of Trichophyton.
“Our skin cells are foie gras to them,” Friedman says. “These organisms just like the top layer of skin.” But when fungus take up residence on the surface, he says, “They can open the door to bacteria and other infections to cross the barrier.”
Once you’ve rid yourself of athlete’s foot, take preventive measures. Lipner advises wearing flip flops on pool decks and in locker room showers, wearing moisture-wicking socks and keeping your nails short.
“Probably the biggest risk factor is a family member with athlete’s foot,” Lipner says. “Genetics may play a role, but exposure is the key thing.”
Keeping your feet clean and dry is important, especially if you wear closed shoes and if you exercise. “Running shoes are petri dishes — dark, warm and salty,” Friedman says, ideal for fungal growth.
Fungus in our environment is looking for a way to latch on, and dry, cracked skin offers that opportunity. So moisturizing your feet regularly can help.
If you’re prone to athlete’s foot or have a history of nail fungus, Lipner recommends daily treatment with a drugstore antifungal product. It reduces your chance of recurrence threefold, she says.
“Athlete’s foot tends to be a chronic condition,” Lipner says. “Expect it to come back. Expect to treat it again.”
— Jill U. Adams, The Washington Post