Athlete's foot is a rash caused by a fungus that usually appears between the toes.

The affected skin may be itchy, red, scaly, dry, cracked or blistered. It's not usually serious, but should be treated to stop it spreading to other parts of the body or other people.

Treatment usually involves pharmacy-bought creams, sprays or liquids and good foot hygiene.

The medical name for athlete's foot is tinea pedis.

Signs and symptoms of athlete's foot

Athlete's foot most commonly affects the skin between the toes or on the bottom of the feet.

Affected areas of skin may be:

  • dry, red, scaly and flaky
  • white, soggy and cracked
  • itchy
  • sore
  • covered in small blisters

The infection can spread around your foot and to your toenails – read more about fungal nail infections. Scratching the infected skin and then touching other parts of your body can also spread the infection.

In severe cases, skin damaged by athlete's foot can become infected with bacteria. This can lead to cellulitis, which causes the skin to become red, hot and swollen.

How do you get athlete's foot?

Athlete's foot is caused by fungi growing and multiplying on the skin. The fungi that cause the infection thrive in warm, dark and moist places like feet.

You're more likely to get athlete's foot if you:

  • don't keep your feet clean and dry
  • wear shoes that cause your feet to get hot and sweaty
  • walk around barefoot in places where fungal infections can spread easily, such as communal showers, locker rooms and gyms
  • share towels, socks and shoes with other people
  • have a weakened immune system
  • have certain other health conditions, such as diabetes

Athlete's foot can easily spread to other people by touching infected skin or coming into contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.

Treatments for athlete's foot

Athlete's foot is unlikely to get better on its own. It can usually be treated using antifungal treatments available from pharmacies without needing to see a GP.

Antifungal treatments work by stopping the fungus causing your athlete's foot from growing. They come in creams, sprays, liquids and powders, and are used in the following way:

  • treatment should be applied directly to the affected skin and surrounding area
  • wash and dry the affected skin before applying the treatment, and clean your hands afterwards
  • continue treatment after the rash has cleared, as described in the leaflet that comes with your medicine, to make sure all the fungus has gone

Antifungal treatments are similarly effective, although some work faster than others. A pharmacist can recommend an antifungal medicine that's safe for you to use. Not all types are suitable for children, older people, and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

If your rash is very sore and itchy, a pharmacist may recommend using a mild steroid cream to ease any discomfort, but this should only be used for a short period and in combination with antifungal treatment.

Contact your GP if your athlete's foot doesn't start to improve after a week of treatment, or if it's causing significant pain or discomfort. Your GP may take a small skin sample for testing and recommend stronger antifungal medicines, including tablets.

It's also important to practise good foot hygiene during treatment to speed up recovery and prevent athlete's foot returning.

Preventing athlete's foot

You can reduce your risk of developing athlete's foot by:

  • drying your feet gently but thoroughly after washing them, particularly the areas between your toes
  • wearing cotton socks and roomy shoes made of natural materials such as leather – this can allow your feet to "breathe"
  • wear a fresh pair of socks, tights or stockings every day
  • change your shoes every couple of days – this allows them to dry out between uses
  • not walking around barefoot in public showers and locker rooms
  • not sharing towels, socks and shoes with other people, and ensuring your towels are washed regularly 
  • using talcum powder on your feet to stop them getting sweaty
  • not using moisturiser between your toes, as this can help fungi multiply

If you or your child develops athlete's foot, there's no need to stay off work or school. Follow the advice above to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.

Page last reviewed: 29/09/2015

Next review due: 29/09/2017