Understanding Athlete's Foot: The Basics

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on March 22, 2024
8 min read

Athlete's foot is a common fungal infection that can develop on your feet and can cause itching, burning, or stinging. You don't have to be an athlete to get it.

It happens in children and adults of all ages. Most often, athlete’s foot will appear between your toes, but it also can form on the top or bottom of your foot. 


The majority of cases are caused by a variety of fungi that also causesjock itch and ringworm. The fungi thrive in closed, warm, moist environments and feed on keratin, a protein found in hair, nails, and skin. Rarely, athlete’s foot can be caused by fungi like yeast (candida).

Walking barefoot in warm or damp public places such as locker rooms, saunas, swimming pools, and communal showers may increase your chances of getting athlete's foot. You also may be at more risk of getting athlete's foot if you often wear closed shoes, sweat heavily, or share mats, rugs, bed sheets, clothes, or shoes with someone who has a fungal infection. You can also be at risk of getting athlete's foot if you have certain medical conditions, like if you have an impaired immune system or diabetes and an open cut or sore on your feet.

Is athlete’s foot contagious?

Athlete's foot is mildly contagious. It can be spread through direct contact with the infection and by skin particles left on towels, shoes, or floors.

Your feet may:

  • Feel like they’re burning
  • Itch
  • Have a rash
  • Peel and crack
  • Have a bad smell

Athlete’s foot on hand

It is possible to get athlete’s foot on your hands. You could get it on your hands if you scratch your infected feet and then touch your hands, or if you use the same towel on your feet and hands.

It's diagnosed by your doctor through a physical exam. They'll ask about your medical history and take a scraping of your skin to send to a lab. Your treatment options may include antifungal meds you take by mouth or creams you apply to the infected area of your skin.


In addition to treatment, good foot hygiene is important.  Wash and dry your feet (including between the toes) every morning and evening. And make sure your feet get plenty of air. If you can't go barefoot or wear sandals, wear synthetic socks that wick away moisture. Cotton tends to trap the moisture and promote fungal growth. 


  • Wear shoes made of a porous material.
  • Change socks or stockings daily.
  • Don't wear the same shoes day after day; allow them time to dry completely before wearing them again. 
  • Wash your socks and towels in the hottest water possible.

If it’s not treated properly and promptly, athlete's foot can be stubborn. Even when you treat it with antifungal drugs prescribed by your doctor, the infection may take several weeks to disappear and may come back after treatment.

There are many types of over-the-counter antifungal powders, creams, gels, lotions, and sprays. You might have to try a few before you find one that works best for you.

It’s important that you take the full course of medicine. If you don’t, the athlete’s foot could come back and then be even more difficult to get rid of.

Athlete’s foot cream

Athlete’s foot is most often treated topically, which means putting something directly on your skin. Antifungal creams are available over the counter, such as at drug stores. The cream may contain clotrimazole, ketoconazole, miconazole, or terbinafine. Follow the directions exactly. Topicals like creams are usually put on once or twice a day for up to 4 weeks. If your case is severe or hasn’t started clearing up after using an over-the-counter cream for 2 weeks, your doctor may prescribe a stronger drug.

Athlete’s foot spray

Sprays for athlete’s foot can be bought over the counter at drug stores and are often successful in treating the infection. 

While topical antifungals have very few side effects, one possible but very rare reaction can be frostbite. Some sprays may contain isobutane, which is linked to causing frostbite.


If the athlete's foot hasn’t gotten better after using a spray for 2 weeks, you should see a doctor who can prescribe something stronger.

Athlete’s foot powder

Antifungal foot powders applied on the feet and in shoes can help you be more comfortable and reduce chances of becoming infected again. You can buy antifungal powders at drugstores.

Medicated foot powder is often successful in treating athlete’s foot. Some brands contain miconazole nitrate, which clinical studies have found provides relief for itchy skin and cracked feet. The powder is also designed to absorb sweat.

You may choose to deal with athlete’s foot at home using a natural remedy. There’s not much scientific research on how well these remedies work, but some have shown promise, including:

Tea tree oil. This oil comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in Australia. Because it can kill some types of bacteria and fungus, people have used it as a home remedy for many years.

When rubbed into your skin twice a day, tea tree oil may reduce the itching, scaling, swelling, and burning of athlete’s foot. But it can take up to a month to see progress. And it doesn’t work for everyone.

Tea tree oil can cause a skin rash or trigger allergies. So talk with your doctor before you try it. They can suggest a tea tree product for you to try or explain how to dilute the oil to avoid side effects.

Never take tea tree oil by mouth since it can be toxic.

Bitter orange. This fruit has been used for years in Chinese medicine and by people who live in the Amazon rainforest.

Bitter orange oil is a natural fungus fighter. Besides athlete’s foot, it may help to clear up ringworm and jock itch.

One study found that when people applied a watered-down form of bitter orange oil to their feet three times a day, the fungus cleared up after a week or two.

Bitter orange can inflame your skin if you use it in its pure form. It can also make you more likely to get a sunburn, so be sure to protect your skin from the sun if you use it.

Ajoene from garlic. Ajoene is a chemical found in garlic that may ease symptoms of athlete’s foot. You can take it by mouth as an antifungal pill. You can also find it in gel form.

In one study, people who applied ajoene to their feet once a day saw their symptoms go away after a week. This method might also help keep athlete’s foot from coming back.

Sunflower oil. Made from the pressed seeds of sunflowers, this oil has long been said to fight germs. Although athlete's foot is not a germ, a brand called Oleozon, which contains ozone (another germ-killer), has been shown to get rid of athlete’s foot when applied to the feet. It’s unclear whether other brands of sunflower oil might work as well.

Green tea. Nutrients in green tea called polyphenols have antifungal powers. Soak your feet in lukewarm green tea and you may notice less peeling and redness. 

But this method won’t work quickly. You may have to soak your feet every day for 3 months. And more studies are needed to prove that green tea can get rid of the fungus, not just make your feet feel and look better.

Sosa. People in rural parts of Mexico use leaves of the Solanum chrysotrichum plant, also called giant devil’s fig. Studies show that a cream made from an extract of this shrubby plant works as an antifungal for athlete’s foot. It could also prevent it from coming back.

But while studies show that sosa is safe to put on your skin, it may be hard to find.

Vinegar. Some people believe that soaking your feet in a mixture of water and vinegar will get rid of athlete’s foot. While a vinegar soak won’t do your feet any harm, there’s not enough research to prove it will do much good, either.

Since athlete's foot is contagious, don't go barefoot in public areas such as the pool or gym where others have walked with bare feet. Instead, wear waterproof shoes or flip-flops in such locations. And since moisture helps the fungus grow, cut your risk by keeping your feet clean and dry.

If you suspect you are in the early stages of athlete’s foot or you think you may have been exposed to the infection, you can immediately start treatment with an over-the-counter cream.

Here are a few other ways to prevent it:

  • Take your shoes off when you go home and let your feet be exposed to the air.
  • Never share shoes, socks, or towels.
  • Don’t wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row.
  • Be doubly cautious if you take an antibiotic for another condition. The medication can kill beneficial bacteria that normally control the fungus that causes athlete's foot.

Even if you’re not an athlete, you’re at risk of getting athlete’s foot, especially if you walk barefoot through locker rooms, in public showers, or around swimming pools. You can choose to treat it yourself by using one of many over-the-counter creams or sprays and trying to keep your feet (especially your toes) dry and clean. If the problem doesn’t go away or worsens, see your doctor, who could give you a prescription topical treatment or antifungal pills.

  • How can I get rid of athlete’s foot fast? At the first sign of a problem, start applying an antifungal cream to your feet and especially between your toes. Studies have shown that medications containing terbinafine achieve results the quickest and require using them once a day for one week.

  • Does athlete’s foot go away by itself? Yes, it can go away by itself, but the odds of getting rid of athlete’s foot are much higher if you treat it with an over-the-counter or prescription medication.

  • How long is athlete’s foot contagious? Although the fungus may disappear during treatment, you may still be contagious and have the infection. That’s why it’s important to complete the entire prescribed form of treatment, however long the duration.

  • What can be mistaken for athlete’s foot? Eczema and dry skin on the foot can be confused with athlete’s foot, as some symptoms are similar. Atopic dermatitis is another condition that could be mistaken for it.