Easing Itchy Feet

Prevention is the best way to avoid the discomfort associated
with athlete’s foot.

by Beverly Burmeier

January 2015

You don’t have to be an athlete to get athlete’s foot. While it commonly lurks in moist environments such as locker rooms and swimming pool decks, walking barefoot in any public place—such as a hotel room—is an invitation for the Tinea pedis fungus to latch onto your feet.

Flaky, cracking, itchy skin on the soles of the foot or between toes are classic athlete’s foot symptoms, although it can also spread to other parts of the body through scratching or contaminated bed sheets. The foot is the most common target because shoes create a warm, dark moist environment that encourages fungal growth. According to the Institute for Preventive Foot Health (ipfh.org), T. pedis “can live in footwear and on surfaces of mats, rugs, clothes and linens for up to six months.”

Prevention Is Best

“The only part of a shoe’s environment that you can control is dampness,” says Nick Taweel, DPM, DPT, podiatrist at the Rothman Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Ventilate your feet, wear clean socks every day and change socks if your feet sweat or get wet.”

“Alternate shoes daily, so they can dry between wearings. After exercising, allow gym shoes to dry thoroughly rather than zipping them up in a dark, damp gym bag,” advises Jane Andersen, DPM, of Chappell Hill, North Carolina. Be aware that waterproof or tight shoes may create a damp environment, allowing the fungus to grow.

Andersen suggests wearing socks made of quick-drying fabrics like acrylic that wick moisture away from skin (cotton holds moisture). Keep your feet dry at all times; if they are prone to sweating, foot powder may help. Avoid applying moisturizer between your toes.

Athlete’s foot can spread by skin-to-skin contact between people and even between people and pets. Be sure to wear sandals or shower shoes whenever you walk around communal areas where someone with infected feet might have been.

Try Natural Remedies

If you are sure athlete’s foot is the proper diagnosis, a common home remedy is tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia), a natural antiseptic that can kill many types of fungi. Apply it to the affected area in either oil, powder or spray form.

Another way to help ease burning and itching is to soak feet in equal parts vinegar and water two times a day. “Even soaking in a very mild bleach solution can be helpful,” Taweel says. However, Andersen warns, “The athlete’s foot fungus has developed resistance to some of these remedies, so they aren’t as effective as they used to be.”

Treat the fungus promptly and avoid re-exposing yourself by disinfecting the shower and your shoes. To prevent spread of athlete’s foot, launder infected socks in bleach and hot water. Lower temperatures will not kill T. pedis and can transfer spores to other fabrics in the same washer load.

Disinfect gym bags and backpacks regularly if they can’t be washed, or use disinfectant wipes to sanitize.

If you have diabetes, see your practitioner immediately. “The fungus weakens defenses in a diabetic person, so bacteria could invade the skin and develop a secondary infection,” Taweel explains. Recurring athlete’s foot or the foot becoming swollen or infected should also prompt a practitioner’s visit. (Pregnant or nursing women should check with their obstetricians before using any topical or oral medications.)

A persistent case of athlete’s foot could spread to toenails and fingernails; controlling it is important because treating skin is easier than treating toenails, Anderson explains. “It’s also possible to develop an infection since fissures in skin are open portals for bacteria to get in,” she adds.

Athlete’s foot can be simply annoying or extremely painful, but taking precautions will help keep your feet fungus-free.

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