Athlete’s foot—the most prevalent foot fungus—thrives in warm, sweaty places like the insides of your athletic shoes, which is how it got its name. However, foot fungus can develop in multiple environments, natural and man-made, as long as there is lots of moisture where fungi can grow. These include shared areas at gyms or pools, soil and grass, or even shared items such as shoes, socks, or towels from household members who are infected.
Athlete's foot is a form of dermatophytosis (fungal infection of the skin), caused by dermatophytes, fungi (most of which are mold) which inhabit dead layers of skin and digests keratin. Dermatophytes are anthropophilic, meaning these parasitic fungi prefer human hosts. Athlete's foot is most commonly caused by the molds known as Trichophyton rubrum and T. mentagrophytes, but may also be caused by Epidermophyton floccosum. Most cases of athlete's foot in the general population are caused by T. rubrum; however, the majority of athlete's foot cases in athletes are caused by T. mentagrophytes.
Fungal nail infections and the resultant nail destruction can promote other sources of infection like cellulitis (a bacterial skin infection) and other forms of tinea, and aggravate foot problems resulting from other illnesses such as diabetes. Diagnosis is usually confirmed by looking at nail clippings through a microscope or other tests before starting treatment.
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Athlete's foot was first medically described in 1908. Globally, athlete's foot affects about 15% of the population. Males are more often affected than females. It occurs most frequently in older children or younger adults. Historically it is believed to have been a rare condition, that became more frequent in the 1900s due to the greater use of shoes, health clubs, war, and travel.
Because fungus needs an acidic environment to flourish, alkaline baking soda actually prevents toenail fungus from spreading by creating an uninhabitable environment for it. Borax is a naturally occurring mineral that is also a powerful fungicide. These two combined create a remedy that can cure nail fungus fast. Mix equal parts borax powder and baking soda with just enough water to form a paste. Wet feet and gently rub the mixture onto infected nails. Do this twice daily and continue for at least two weeks after fungus appears to have cleared up.
Some methods of prevention include avoiding walking barefoot in public showers, keeping the toenails short, wearing big enough shoes, and changing socks daily. When infected, the feet should be kept dry and clean and wearing sandals may help. Treatment can be either with antifungal medication applied to the skin such as clotrimazole or for persistent infections antifungal medication that are taken by mouth such as terbinafine. The use of the cream is typically recommended for four weeks.
Select shoes that fit right – Choosing the correct footwear is a must if you want to avoid toenail fungus. Shoes should not touch your toenails at all. Don’t jam your feet into shoes that are too big either – this will cause you to jam your toenail into the front of the shoe causing damage. According to the American Academy of Physicians, the best shoes have a wide toe box.
The Internet is filled with anecdotal information on how to cure toenail fungus using home remedies. Vinegar is a commonly recommended home remedy. Some people apply various oils such as tea tree oil, coconut oil, essential oils, and oil of cedar leaf (such as Vicks VapoRub) to their nails as well. The effectiveness of these home remedies is highly doubtful. Application of household bleach and hydrogen peroxide is also not recommended due to lack of evidence that these treatments work. These agents can also cause unwanted skin irritation. Thickened nails that have been affected by fungus can be difficult to trim. Using topical urea cream will soften the nail and make it easier to trim. These creams do not require a prescription.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
The medical name for fungal athlete's foot is tinea pedis. There are a variety of fungi that cause athlete's foot, and these can be contracted in many locations, including gyms, locker rooms, swimming pools, communal showers, nail salons, and from contaminated socks and clothing. The fungi can also be spread directly from person to person by contact. Most people acquire fungus on the feet from walking barefoot in areas where someone else with athlete's foot has recently walked. Some people are simply more prone to this condition while others seem relatively resistant to it. Another colorful name for this condition is "jungle rot," often used by members of the armed services serving in tropical climates.
Many podiatrists now consider this an effective treatment, but because it’s new, there’s not enough concrete data to compare with other treatments. Dr. Hinkes raises another concern: “A clinical cure and a mycological cure are two different things. With the clinical cure, you look at the nail and it looks fine. It’s pink and shiny and smooth and it looks great. But if you sample the nail, you might find that there’s mold or fungus there, so it does not have what we call a mycological cure—mycology is the study of fungi.
There are many possible causes of foot rashes. Additional causes include irritant or contact dermatitis, allergic rashes from shoes or other creams, pompholyx (dyshidrotic eczema), psoriasis, yeast infections, and bacterial infections (gram negative toe web infection and erythrasma). Since these conditions are often indistinguishable on superficial visual examination, it is important for your doctor to do his best to identify the precise cause. Since fungal infections are potentially curable, it is important not to miss this diagnosis.
High heeled shoes push too much body weight toward the toes and then squeeze them together. Over time, the result can be hammertoe (early stage, lower right), abnormal bends in the toe joints that can gradually become rigid. Surgery is sometimes needed to relieve the pain of severe hammertoe. Crowding can cause other toe deformities, along with continuous shoe friction, leading to painful corns and calluses.
Nail infections occur more often in men than in women, and the infections are found in adults more often than in children. If you have family members who often get these types of fungal infections, you’re more likely to get them as well. Older adults are at the highest risk for getting fungal infections of the nails because they have poorer circulation and their nails grow more slowly and thicken as they age.
Wei, Y.-X., Xu, X.-Y., Xu, & Song, X. (2017). A review of antifungal natural products against the pathogenic fungi causing athletes' foot disease. Current Organic Chemistry, 21, 1–13. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Xun_Song/publication/319128408_A_Review_of_Antifungal_Natural_Products_Against_the_Pathogenic_Fungi_Causing_Athletes'_Foot_Disease/links/59931c65458515c0ce61efa1/A-Review-of-Antifungal-Natural-Products-Against-the-Pathogenic-Fungi-Causing-Athletes-Foot-Disease.pdf