Health Education

Athlete’s foot treatment and medications

Cropped SingleCare logo By | January 22, 2020
Medically reviewed by Anis Rehman, MD

What is athlete’s foot? | Athlete’s foot diagnosis | Athlete’s foot treatment options | Athlete’s foot medications | Best athlete’s foot medications | Side effects of athlete’s foot medications | Athlete’s foot home remedies | FAQ | Resources

Your feet might seem sturdy and invulnerable, but just like other body parts, they can come down with infections, perhaps none more prevalent than athlete’s foot. Despite the name, this skin infection isn’t just reserved for athletes. It can occur in anyone, causing itchy sores, redness, burning, and other symptoms. Read on to learn more about athlete’s foot symptoms and treatments.

What is athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot, also called tinea pedis, is a fungal infection that occurs on the upper layer of skin and thrives in warm, moist areas. It often manifests as red, flaky, and/or scaly skin between the toes or on the soles of the feet and can be accompanied by oozing or itching blisters.

Athlete’s foot is caused by a type of fungus called a dermatophyte (most typically Trichophyton, Epidermophyton, and Microsporum), the same kind that causes jock itch. Dermatophytes love darkness, warmth, and moisture, which allow them to reproduce. They function by decomposing keratin and often infect keratin-rich tissues like skin, nails, and hair. The easiest way to contract athlete’s foot is by walking barefoot where this fungus is present. Bathrooms, locker rooms, and public swimming pools are common breeding grounds for these pesky fungal cells because they get a lot of barefoot traffic.

“Fungus grows and reproduces by making spores, which are extremely hardy, dormant organisms that can be all over our toes or bathroom floor,” said Yolanda Ragland, doctor of podiatric medicine, founder, and CEO of Fix Your Feet. “Fungus doesn’t mean you are dirty, but it could be dormant for years, and if someone susceptible steps on it and then puts on their shoes, the fungus will grow as our feet sweat in these dark, moist areas. There are people who get fungal infections and people who do not—whether you are susceptible is determined by your physiology.”

Athlete’s foot is highly contagious and prevalent, occurring in 20 to 25% of the world’s population. Men and older adults are more susceptible to athlete’s foot, and despite the rise of new treatments, it’s become more common over the past two decades. Most cases of athlete’s foot will respond to treatment as long as you’re diligent, but it can be persistent. It’s usually a good idea to visit your primary care physician, podiatrist, or dermatologist for treatment, especially if your stubborn infection just won’t go away.

How is athlete’s foot diagnosed?

How do you know if you have athlete’s foot? Since the symptoms of athlete’s foot are often visible, it’s easy to diagnose on sight. Your healthcare provider will perform a visual examination and ask questions about your medical history, mainly to determine if you’ve had a similar fungal or bacterial infection before.

He or she will likely look for the hallmark signs of a fungal skin infection. Athlete’s foot “can come in a variety of forms, but it usually looks like a flat, scaly, red rash on the outside or inside of your feet, or between your toes. This can often be seen with what looks like dry skin, especially if it’s interdigital,” according to Daniel Paull, MD, founder, and CEO of Easy Orthopedics. In less obvious cases, Dr. Paull says, your doctor might “scrape some of the skin from your foot, prepare it with potassium hydroxide, and put it under a microscope to confirm the diagnosis.”

Athlete’s foot treatment options

The good news is that there are a number of viable and effective treatment options for athlete’s foot. Even though it can be a tenacious opponent, athlete’s foot is curable—it’s just a matter of eradicating the fungus. Usually, your healthcare provider will start out with an over-the-counter medication like a topical antifungal cream or powder. “Most athlete’s foot infections will respond to OTC antifungal medications. These can be purchased at any convenience store, or even online on Amazon,” explains Dr. Paull.

However, more persistent and severe cases may require oral or topical prescription medications. If your infection doesn’t clear up within three to four weeks of self-treatment, recurs frequently, or spreads to other parts of your body (like finger and toenails, hands, groin, etc.) your athlete’s foot might require a prescription medication instead.

Athlete’s foot medications

Over-the-counter antifungal creams

These versatile over-the-counter antifungal creams are highly effective in treating not just athlete’s foot, but other forms of ringworm as well. Simply apply the cream to the affected area twice a day, as directed by your doctor.

With a strict, two-times-per-day regimen, OTC antifungal creams like Lotrimin and Lamisil can clear up foot fungus in a matter of weeks. Lotrimin disrupts fungal cell membrane production, while Lamisil prevents fungi from making sterols, which are an integral part of cell membranes.

Side effects for these topical medications may include itching, stinging, redness, and hives around the application site. Other times, your doctor might recommend a prescription cream like Loprox or Naftin, which works by killing the fungus directly, then preventing further growth.

Antifungal foot powders

Antifungal powders are often considered less effective than creams because they don’t absorb into the skin. However, powders are the best option for reducing moisture, which makes your feet a less conducive environment for fungal cell growth. Lotrimin and Lamisil come as foot powders, as do Zeasorb and Tinactin. Like the creams listed above, you’ll apply this powder to the affected area twice per day and side effects, when they occur, can include itching, burning, and rash.

Oral antifungals

When topical antifungal medications fail, it might be time to try oral administration, which can be a more powerful treatment. One of the most common prescription oral antifungals is terbinafine. Typically, a course of oral athlete’s foot medication will last anywhere from one to eight weeks, and you’ll need to complete the entire course, as fungi can lie dormant even after disappearing. Despite their effectiveness, doctors often prescribe oral antifungals sparingly, due to their effects on the liver.

What is the best medication for athlete’s foot?

Every case of athlete’s foot is unique, so it’s impossible to choose one treatment that works across the board. There isn’t a “best” treatment; treatment depends on your particular situation. Your doctor will consider your condition severity, medical history, current medications, and more when selecting a treatment route.

Here are some of the most common over-the-counter and prescription medications used for curing athlete’s foot:

Best medications for athlete’s foot
Drug name Drug class Administration route Standard dosage Common side effects
Lotrimin AF
(clotrimazole)
Antifungals Topical Applied to the affected area twice a day for four to eight weeks. Redness, stinging, itching, peeling
Lotrimin Ultra
(butenafine)
Antifungals Topical Applied to the affected area twice a day for one week, or once a day for four weeks. Burning, stinging, irritation, itching
Lamisil AT
(terbinafine)
Antifungals Topical Applied to the affected area twice a day for one to four weeks Burning, redness, itching, irritation
Lamisil AF Defense (tolnaftate) Antifungals Topical Applied to the affected area twice a day for four to six weeks Skin irritation
Zeasorb AF
(miconazole)
Antifungals Topical Applied to the affected area twice a day for two to four weeks Skin irritation, burning, rash
Naftin
(naftifine)
Antifungals Topical Applied to the affected area once a day (cream), or twice a day (gel) for two weeks Itching, burning, stinging, redness, dryness, rash
Ecoza
(econazole)
Antifungals Topical Applied to the affected area once a day for two to six weeks Burning, itching, stinging, redness
Loprox
(ciclopirox)
Antifungals Topical Applied to the affected area twice a day for one week Burning, itching, stinging, redness
Nizoral
(ketoconazole)
Antifungals Topical, Oral Topical: Applied to the affected area once a day for two to six weeks

Oral: Once a day as advised by your doctor

Topical: Itching, skin irritation

Oral: Nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness

Sporanox
(itraconazole)
Antifungals Oral 100 mg once a day, as advised by your doctor Dizziness, nausea, headache, upset stomach

Dosage is determined by your doctor based on your medical condition, response to treatment, age, and weight. Other possible side effects exist. This is not a complete list.

What are common side effects of athlete’s foot medicine?

Of course, there’s always a chance of side effects. The silver lining is that, because most athlete’s foot medications are topical, these side effects are often localized to the area of application. Adverse effects like a worsening of tinea pedis symptoms and skin irritations such as the following can occur:

  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Stinging
  • Blisters
  • Peeling
  • Rash

If you’re applying a particular topical antifungal regularly and it seems to be compounding your symptoms, contact your doctor. You may need to try a different type of medication.

Prescription oral antifungal medications are more powerful and can, therefore, have more serious side effects, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Upset stomach
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

In rare cases, Nizoral (ketoconazole) can cause liver damage and Sporanox (itraconazole) can cause heart failure. These are the most extreme cases, but the risk still exists, so doctors typically only prescribe these medications after other options have proven ineffective.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, and side effects can vary depending on the medication as well as your condition, health, and history. Ask your doctor about potential side effects before beginning treatment.

What is the best home remedy for athlete’s foot?

Most mild cases of athlete’s foot don’t require a trip to the doctor or medication—you might be able to take care of it from home. If you begin to notice the signs of an infection, you can try one of these remedies before visiting a healthcare provider:

  • Hydrogen peroxide: You might have used hydrogen peroxide to clear bacteria from a cut or scrape, and it works the same way for fungi. It can also help prevent bacterial infection of any sores or blisters.
  • Garlic: Garlic has antimicrobial properties that can be effective in treating fungal infections. You can rub crushed cloves directly on the affected area or take an oral dose of ajoene, the chemical found in garlic.
  • Tea tree oil: Applied directly to the feet, tea tree oil can help relieve athlete’s foot symptoms.
  • Talcum powder: The main benefit of talcum powder is keeping your feet cool and dry, inhibiting the growth and spread of fungal cells. It’s best used as a supplement to other forms of treatment.
  • Epsom salt: Prepare a foot soak with some Epsom salt and it may help draw out the moisture that fungi love so much. Plus it feels great on your feet.
  • Baking soda: Another foot soak ingredient, baking soda has antifungal properties that can help combat athlete’s foot.
  • Apple cider vinegar: Vinegar’s acidity can effectively kill fungus, and if you use it in a foot bath, it may help relieve itching as well.

No matter which home treatments you try, keeping moisture at bay should be your top priority. “Epsom salt, tea tree oil, garlic, hydrogen peroxide with iodine, and baking soda all have been proven in preventing fungal infections in mild cases,” says Dr. Ragland. “However, dry feet are crucial in warding off athlete’s foot, so if you are implementing any of these remedies via a foot bath, remember to dry the feet completely.” When you go out, wear well-ventilated shoes and avoid wool or cotton socks, which can absorb and trap moisture. Keeping your feet clean will help prevent athlete’s foot.

Frequently asked questions about athlete’s foot

Why is athlete’s foot hard to cure?

Athlete’s foot isn’t always difficult to treat–the problem is that it has a tendency to recur. However, if you’re diligent in applying antifungal creams/powders, keeping your feet dry, and avoiding barefoot strolls in places that it might live, you can prevent it from coming back.

What will happen if athlete’s foot is left untreated?

Untreated athlete’s foot won’t kill you, but it will make your life uncomfortable. It can spread to your hands and other areas of skin, or cause fungal toenail or fingernail infections. In certain cases, it can also lead to bacterial infections.

How long does it take to get rid of athlete’s foot?

If you consistently apply antifungal medication and keep your feet dry, athlete’s foot often clears up in one week, but it can take as long as four weeks.

How do you get rid of athlete’s foot fast?

Visit your doctor, who will assess your condition and recommend the best treatment. Then, follow a strict regimen of OTC or prescription medication and eliminate moisture around your feet. You can also use the home remedies listed in this guide as supplemental treatments.

What is the best medicine for athlete’s foot?

Most cases of athlete’s foot are responsive to OTC topical antifungals like Lotrimin AF and Lamisil AT, but certain severe cases may require a prescription medication like Naftin. Milder cases can sometimes clear up completely using only home remedies. In the end, it all depends on your specific condition, health, and circumstances.

How do you treat athlete’s foot on your hands?

Scratching at your athlete’s foot might provide temporary relief, but it can also transfer the infection to your hands, not to mention irritate your feet. It’s the same fungus, so it will often respond to similar medications and home treatments. Keep your hands dry and routinely apply any topical medicine your doctor suggests.

How do you use apple cider vinegar to treat athlete’s foot?

The most common method is via a foot soak. Combine two parts warm water and one part apple cider vinegar in a basin, then soak your feet for 10 to 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can apply it directly to the infected area using a cotton swab.

Related resources for athlete’s foot