Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My husband and two sons all have athlete's foot, and my daughter and I don't want to catch it. Now that it's in the house, can we get rid of it?

Dear Reader: Athlete's foot, also known as tinea pedis, is a common fungal infection. Anyone who has suffered through the maddening itch of athlete's foot, often in the delicate skin between the toes, is primed to be vigilant about preventing future infections.

Symptoms include that relentless itch, which can occur anywhere on the foot that the fungus is active, redness, and cracked, flaking or scaly skin. In some cases, tiny blisters may be present. Treatment with over-the-counter antifungal medications is usually successful. But be sure to follow the entire prescribed course of treatment. Even when it looks as though the infection has cleared up, the fungus can still be present, and therefore reinfection is possible.

A variety of different fungi can cause athlete's foot, but they all have one thing in common -- they thrive on moisture. That's the key to understanding how and where one contracts athlete's foot. It's also the answer to how to combat it.

Athlete's foot spreads either through contact with fungi or by contact with infected skin. Perpetually damp areas like locker rooms, bathroom floors, showers and swimming pools are prime breeding grounds for the fungi. They can also live in socks, shoes and towels, all of which tend to remain moist. Someone with athlete's foot should never share shoes or socks, as the infection can spread easily.

With the men in your family now assiduously applying anti-fungal products and keeping their footwear to themselves, let's talk about strategies to stop the spread of the infection.

-- Wash all socks, towels, bath mats, sheets and any other items that may have come into contact with the infection in the hottest water possible. If the fabrics can tolerate it, a cap of Lysol disinfectant in the wash is helpful. Dry thoroughly, and at the highest heat setting possible. Keep separate from regular laundry.

-- Always wear sandals when walking in moist areas, such as the bathroom, public showers, pools and locker rooms. (And since the fungus can remain alive for a time even in dry areas, it's best to never walk barefoot in hotel rooms.)

-- Keep feet clean and dry. Wash carefully and dry thoroughly, especially between toes. Use talcum powder or an antifungal powder as extra insurance. Make sure that toenails, which can house the fungus, are clipped short and kept clean. Change socks daily.

-- While the athlete's foot infection is active, put socks on first, and then underwear. The same fungi that cause athlete's foot are responsible for jock itch.

-- Air out shoes between wearings. Sunlight is good. Fumigating with a blast of Lysol is better. (Be sure to let the shoes dry completely before their next use.)

Finally, if nonprescription antifungals don't work, if the infection keeps coming back and for anyone who has diabetes, it is important to see your doctor.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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