Athlete’s foot

Athlete’s foot (also known as tinea pedis) is a common fungal skin infection. You can often treat it with cream from your pharmacy.

Key points about athlete’s foot

  1. Athletes foot is caused by a fungal infection (also known as tinea).
  2. Symptoms include include raw, cracked or scaly skin, redness and itching. Usually the symptoms involve the skin between your toes.
  3. Treatment includes keeping your feet clean and dry and using antifungal cream or tablets.
  4. You can help prevent athletes foot by drying your feet well after washing and changing your socks every day and not going barefoot in public changing rooms.

See your GP if: 

  • your infection has not gone away by the time you finished the course of treatment
  • your infection gets worse
  • you also have diabetes or a weakened immune system
  • your foot is red, hot and painful
  • your toenails are also affected.

What causes athletes foot?

Athlete’s foot is caused by tinea (a ringworm fungus). It can be easily caught through touching an area of fungal skin infection on another person or animal. You can also catch it from an object or surface that has been touched by the infected skin of a person or animal. Common places you can catch athlete’s foot from include bathroom or shower floors, bathmats, towels and swimming pool or gym changing rooms.

You are more likely to get the infection if you:

  • have wet or sweaty feet
  • have damaged skin on your feet 
  • walk barefoot in public places
  • have diabetes or other conditions that weaken your immune system, eg, you are on chemotherapy
  • are on medicines such as steroids or immunosuppressive medicines.

What are the symptoms of athletes foot?

Symptoms of athlete's foot can include:

  • redness or itching, often between your toes
  • itchy white patches between your toes
  • burning or stinging
  • a rash that may form blisters or pustules
  • raw, inflamed, cracked or scaly skin
  • if severe, weeping or oozing areas of skin.

athlete's foot infection small toe

Is athlete’s foot serious?

Athlete's foot is not usually serious. The fungal infection can sometimes spread to other body parts such as your groin skin or toenails, but it does not usually spread deeper than your skin or nail. Treatment usually works well. 

Occasionally athlete’s foot can lead to other skin infections, such as
cellulitis, because bacteria can get in through broken skin. This means it's good to get athlete’s foot treated properly. 

How is athletes foot diagnosed?

Usually athlete’s foot can be diagnosed by your doctor examining your foot and asking you questions. Your doctor may check other parts of your body to find out whether other areas also have a fungal infection, such as your groin, toenails or leg. If the cause for your symptoms is not clear, a small scraping of your skin may need to be sent to the laboratory for analysis. You may also be referred to a dermatologist (a skin specialist doctor).

How is athletes foot treated?

You can often treat athlete's foot at home with cream you can buy from a pharmacy. Talk to your pharmacist to find out if that is safe for you.

Treatment includes:

  • self-care such as keeping your feet clean and dry
  • medicines such as antifungal cream or tablets.

Self-care

If you have athlete’s foot, it is important to keep your feet clean and dry. 

  • Shower or bathe daily and dry thoroughly between your toes.
  • Wear socks made from fibres that draw moisture away from your skin, such as wool or cotton.
  • Change your socks every day. 
  • Don't share towels, shoes or socks with other people.
  • Wash socks, towels and bathmats in very hot water (over 60ºC) and dry them well.
  • Don't walk around barefoot in public places such as changing rooms.
  • Don't wear shoes that make your feet hot and sweaty.
  • Take your shoes off when you are at home.
  • Don't scratch the affected area as this can spread the fungus.

Medicines

The usual treatment for athlete’s foot is an antifungal medicine. These can come as a cream, ointment or tablet. They can be bought from your local pharmacy or be prescribed by your doctor. Follow the instructions on the pack carefully. Some products need to be used regularly until 1 or 2 weeks after the infection has cleared, to prevent the infection from coming back.

Antifungal medicines used to treat athlete’s foot include:

How can I prevent athletes foot?

Once your infection has gone, try to prevent it from coming back by:

  • keeping your feet clean and dry
  • changing your socks every day
  • taking off your shoes and socks when you are at home
  • wearing open-toed shoes if possible
  • alternating the shoes you wear each day so they can dry out (air them in the sun if possible)
  • drying your skin carefully after you shower or swim
  • wearing jandals or plastic sandals in public swimming or changing areas
  • not sharing towels with others.

Learn more

The following links provide further information on athlete’s foot. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Ringworm and tinea infection – a patients guide Family Doctor, NZ
Athlete’s foot Patient Info, UK
Athlete’s foot NHS, UK 

References

  1. Tinea pedis DermNet NZ
  2. Tinea pedis – not just the curse of the athlete BPAC, NZ, 2014

Reviewed by

Dr Alice Miller trained as a GP in the UK and has been working in New Zealand since 2013. She has undertaken extra study in diabetes, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and skin cancer medicine. Alice has a special interest in preventative health and self-care, which she is building on by studying for the Diploma of Public Health with the University of Otago in Wellington.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Alice Miller, FRNZCGP, Wellington Last reviewed: 21 May 2021