Flaky, itchy skin between your toes is the classic sign of athlete’s foot. This fungal infection is often treatable with over-the-counter ointments, but there are a few things you should know before you start.
Make sure it’s only on your feet
The fungus that causes athlete’s foot can also appear on other parts of your body. In the groin it’s called jock itch; on other body parts it’s usually called ringworm. Ringworm is not a worm, it’s just a term for fungus that likes to eat the top layer of our skin. (Sometimes it starts small and spreads outward in a ring-like shape.)
The American Academy of Dermatology points out that if you have infections on more than one body part—let’s say you have athlete’s foot and a patch of ringworm on your arm—treating just one of them is unlikely to be effective. You need to treat all of the ringworm to fully clear it.
If large areas of skin are affected, you may need oral medications or prescription-strength medications, so seek medical help. Ringworm on the nails, scalp, or beard area also tends to require prescription treatment.
Make sure you have athlete’s foot
If you’ve had athlete’s foot before you may be familiar with exactly what it looks like, but it’s important to know that other skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can look a lot like athlete’s foot. When in doubt, get a real diagnosis rather than relying on Dr. Google.
Correct identification matters because these conditions often have opposite treatments. For example, hydrocortisone cream helps eczema, but can make athlete’s foot worse.
Get an antifungal treatment
Fortunately, there are over-the-counter treatments that work well for athlete’s foot and other types of ringworm. Topical antifungal creams often include clotrimazole or terbinafine as their active ingredients.
Follow directions and continue using the treatment (whether it’s a cream or a pill) as long as recommended. As with antibiotics, if you stop too soon you may find that the infection comes back.
Wash your hands
After touching your feet or applying the antifungal treatment, wash your hands to make sure you don’t spread any of the fungus to other parts of your body or to other people.
Keep your feet clean and dry
It’s worth thinking about how you got athlete’s foot (or ringworm) in the first place. The fungus can be transmitted from person to person, and it thrives in moist environments.
While it’s associated with showers and locker rooms, the showers themselves aren’t always to blame. Athletes tend to spend a lot of time in sweaty clothing and come in skin-to-skin contact with other sweaty people if they play contact sports. You can also pick up the fungus from the dirt outside.
So, yes, you can theoretically pick up the fungus from a locker room floor, but you’ll be a lot less likely to be infected if you make sure to dry your feet thoroughly before putting your socks and shoes back on. Remember, the fungus likes warm, damp environments, so a wet foot shoved hurriedly into a sock is a perfect breeding ground.