Athlete’s foot

Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) can itch, crack the skin and sometimes cause a toenail infection. Read on to find out how athlete’s foot develops, how to help prevent it and how to treat it.

At a glance

  • Almost everyone gets athlete’s foot at some point in their life.
  • Athlete’s foot is usually caused by skin fungi.
  • Athlete’s foot can be effectively treated with creams from a pharmacy.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Athlete’s foot: person with surgical gloves examining toes on two feet.

What is athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) can redden or crack the skin and cause itchiness. The fungus often sets in between the little toe and the toe next to it and can be effectively treated with creams from a pharmacy. Keeping the feet dry can prevent athlete’s foot.

Fußpilz: Zwischenräume der Zehen sind besonders gefährdet.

What are the signs of athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot particularly flourishes between the toes. Typical symptoms include the skin there becoming itchy and flaky. It also turns white in color and feels thicker or swollen.

What causes athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot is most commonly caused by skin fungi. These search out cracks or injured areas of the skin, for example, and penetrate the top skin layer.

Important: Skin fungi like warm, moist environments as these allow them to spread. The fungal spores are transmitted by direct skin contact or flakes of skin. This occurs if bare skin touches infected flakes, for example in communal showers or the swimming pool.

The fungal spores can also cause fungal nail infections. Skin fungi like feet as their top skin layer contains high levels of keratin – a protein that they feed on. Furthermore, it is often warm and moist in shoes.

The risk of athlete’s foot can be increased by:

  • allergies
  • sweaty feet
  • neurodermatitis
  • prolonged use of medication that weakens the immune system
  • a weak immune system due to an illness
  • circulation problems in the legs, for example due to diabetes or constricted blood vessels
  • jobs in which people have to wear sturdy footwear, such as safety or rubber boots
  • sports like running or swimming
  • widespread athlete’s foot within the family

How common is athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot is widespread: studies show it to affect 3 to 15 percent of the population. It is more common in older people than younger ones and in men than woman.

How does athlete’s foot develop?

Athlete’s foot does not usually go away of its own accord. If left untreated, the fungus can spread and infect the toenails (fungal nail infection). Athlete’s foot rarely spreads to other parts of the body such as the hands. It is not dangerous to people who are otherwise healthy.

How can athlete’s foot be prevented?

Athlete’s foot can be prevented by allowing feet to air as often as possible, wearing flip-flops at the swimming pool, using a personal hand towel, doing the washing at a minimum temperature of 60 degrees.

The following measures can help to prevent athlete’s foot:

  • thoroughly drying the feet after showering, swimming or having a bath
  • wearing flip-flops in changing rooms, communal showers and swimming pools
  • wearing shoes that are not too tight and ideally let the feet breathe
  • taking shoes off as often as possible
  • not sharing towels, socks or shoes
  • washing towels, socks and bedding at 60 degrees Celsius or above

How effectively these measures actually protect against athlete’s foot has not yet been fully researched.

How is athlete’s foot diagnosed?

A doctor examines the affected areas of skin and asks about the symptoms.

A skin sample is also taken to rule out other skin conditions. This is checked for fungal spores in a laboratory. The test results are usually available the next day.

Results can take longer (about 3 weeks) if a test is needed to determine the precise type of pathogen. This is because a fungal culture has to be grown in a laboratory. Such tests are rarely necessary.

How can athlete’s foot be treated?

Sprays, gels and creams with active ingredients for combating athlete’s foot can be purchased over the counter in pharmacies. These active ingredients kill the fungi or prevent them from spreading. Athlete’s foot usually goes away after a few weeks.

Studies have proven that the external treatment of athlete’s foot is generally effective and successful. However, if applying remedies does not resolve the problem, tablets may help.

The effectiveness of home remedies such as herbal foot baths or tea tree oil has not been scientifically proven.

Further information on the topic of athlete’s foot as well as its treatment can be found at

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG).

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