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A severe case of athlete's foot
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Athlete's foot (also known as ringworm of the foot, tinea pedum, and moccasin foot) is a common and contagious skin disease that causes itching, scaling, flaking, and sometimes blistering of the affected areas. Its medical name is tinea pedis, a member of the group of diseases or conditions known as tinea, most of which are dermatophytoses (fungal infections of the skin, hair, or nails), which in turn are mycoses (broad category of fungal infections). Globally, athlete's foot affects about 15% of the population.
Tinea pedis is caused by fungi such as Epidermophyton floccosum or fungi of the Trichophyton genus including T. rubrum, T. mentagrophytes, and T. tonsurans (more common in children). These fungi are typically transmitted in moist communal areas where people go barefoot, such as around swimming pools or in locker rooms, and require a warm moist environment like the inside of a shoe to incubate. Fungal infection of the foot may be acquired (or reacquired) in many ways, such as by walking in an infected locker room, by using an infested bathtub, by sharing a towel used by someone with the disease, by touching the feet with infected fingers (such as after scratching another infected area of the body), or by wearing fungi-contaminated socks or shoes.
Infection can often be prevented by keeping the feet dry by limiting the use of footwear that enclose the feet, or by remaining barefoot. The fungi may spread to other areas of the body, such as by scratching. The fungi tend to infect areas of skin that are kept warm and moist, such as with insulation (clothes), body heat, and sweat. However, the spread of the infection is not limited to skin. Toe nails become infected with fungi in the same way as the rest of the foot, typically by being trapped with fungi in the warm, dark, moist inside of a shoe.
To effectively treat athlete's foot, it is necessary to treat the entire infection, wherever it is on the body, until the fungi are dead and the skin has fully healed. There is a wide array of over the counter and prescription topical medications in the form of liquids, sprays, powders, ointments, and creams for killing fungi that have infected the feet or the body in general. For persistent conditions, oral medications are available by prescription.
Signs and symptoms
Athlete's foot is divided into four categories or presentations: chronic interdigital athlete's foot, plantar (chronic scaly) athlete's foot (aka "moccasin foot"), acute ulcerative tinea pedis, and vesiculobullous athlete's foot. "Interdigital" means between the toes. "Plantar" here refers to the sole of the foot. The ulcerative condition includes macerated lesions with scaly borders. Maceration is the softening and breaking down of skin due to extensive exposure to moisture. A vesiculobullous disease is a type of mucocutaneous disease characterized by vesicles and bullae (i.e. blisters). Both vesicles and bullae are fluid-filled lesions, and they are distinguished by size (vesicles being less than 5–10 mm and bulla being larger than 5–10 mm, depending upon what definition is used).
Athlete's foot occurs most often between the toes (interdigital), with the space between the fourth and fifth digits most commonly afflicted. Cases of interdigital athlete's foot caused by Trichophyton rubrum may cause no symptoms or the skin between the toes may appear red or ulcerative (scaly, flaky, with soft and white if skin has been kept wet), and may itch. An acute ulcerative variant of interdigital athlete's foot caused by T. mentagrophytes is characterized by pain, maceration of the skin, erosions and fissuring of the skin, crusting, and an odor due to bacterial infection of the skin.
Plantar athlete's foot (moccasin foot) is also caused by T. rubrum which typically causes asymptomatic, slightly erythematous plaques (areas of redness of the skin) to form on the plantar surface (sole) of the foot that are often covered by fine, powdery hyperkeratotic scales.
The vesiculobullous type of athlete's foot is less common and is usually caused by T. mentagrophytes and is characterized by a sudden outbreak of itchy blisters and vesicles on an erythematous base, usually appearing on the sole of the foot. This subtype of athlete's foot is often complicated by secondary bacterial infection by Streptococcus pyogenes or Staphylococcus aureus.
Athlete's foot is a form of dermatophytosis, caused by dermatophytes, fungi which inhabit dead layers of skin and destroys keratin. Dermatophytes are anthropophilic, meaning these parasitic fungi prefer human hosts. Athlete's foot is most commonly caused by the fungi Trichophyton rubrum or T. mentagrophytes, but may also be caused by Epidermophyton floccosum. Most cases of athlete's foot in the general population are caused by T. rubrum; however, the majority of athlete's foot cases in athletes are caused by T. mentagrophytes.
According to the National Health Service, "Athlete’s foot is very contagious and can be spread through direct and indirect contact." The disease may spread to others directly when they touch the infection. People can contract the disease indirectly by coming into contact with contaminated items (clothes, towels, etc.) or surfaces (such as bathroom, shower, or locker room floors). The fungi that cause athlete's foot easily spread to one's environment. Fungi rub off of fingers and bare feet, but also travel on the dead skin cells that continually fall off the body. Athlete's foot fungi and infested skin particles and flakes may spread to socks, shoes, clothes, to other people, pets (via petting), bed sheets, bathtubs, showers, sinks, counters, towels, rugs, floors, and carpets.
One way to contract athlete's foot is to get a fungal infection somewhere else on the body first. The fungi causing athlete's foot may spread from other areas of the body to the feet, usually by touching or scratching the affected area, thereby getting the fungus on the fingers, and then touching or scratching the feet. While the fungus remains the same, the name of the condition changes based on where on the body the infection is located. For example, the infection is known as tinea corporis ("ringworm") when the torso or limbs are affected or tinea cruris (jock itch or dhobi itch) when the groin is affected. Clothes (or shoes), body heat, and sweat can keep skin warm and moist, just the environment the fungi needs to thrive.
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Besides being exposed to any of the modes of transmission presented above, there are additional risk factors that increase one's chance of contracting athlete's foot. Persons who have had athlete's foot before are more likely to become infected than those who have not. Adults are more likely to catch athlete's foot than children. Men have a higher chance of getting athlete's foot than women. People with diabetes or weakened immune systems are more susceptible to the disease. HIV/AIDS hampers the immune system and increases the risk of acquiring athlete's foot.
When visiting a doctor, the basic diagnosis procedure applies. This includes checking the patient's medical history and medical record for risk factors, a medical interview during which the doctor asks questions (such as about itching and scratching), and a physical examination. Athlete's foot can usually be diagnosed by visual inspection of the skin and by identifying less obvious symptoms such as itching of the affected area.
If the diagnosis is uncertain, direct microscopy of a potassium hydroxide preparation of a skin scraping (known as a KOH test) can confirm the diagnosis of athlete's foot and help rule out other possible causes, such as candidiasis, pitted keratolysis, erythrasma, contact dermatitis, eczema, or psoriasis. Dermatophytes known to cause athlete's foot will demonstrate multiple septate branching hyphae on microscopy.
A Wood's lamp (black light), although useful in diagnosing fungal infections of the scalp (tinea capitis), is not usually helpful in diagnosing athlete's foot, since the common dermatophytes that cause this disease do not fluoresce under ultraviolet light.
As the disease progresses, the skin may crack, leading to bacterial skin infection and inflammation of the lymphatic vessels. If allowed to grow for too long, athlete's foot fungi may spread to infect the toe nails, feeding on the keratin in them, a condition called onychomycosis.
Because athlete's foot may itch, it may also elicit the scratch reflex, causing the host to scratch the infected area before he or she realizes it. Scratching can further damage the skin and worsen the condition by allowing the fungi to more easily spread and thrive. The itching sensation associated with athlete's foot can be so severe, that it may cause hosts to scratch vigorously enough to inflict excoriations (open wounds), which are susceptible to bacterial infection. Further scratching may remove scabs, inhibiting the healing process.
Scratching infected areas may also spread the fungi to the fingers and under the finger nails. From there it can be spread to wherever the person touches, including one's environment. It can also infect the fingers and fingernails, growing in the skin and in the nails (not just underneath). Scratching also causes infested skin scales to fall off into one's environment, leading to further possible spread.
When athlete's foot fungi or infested skin particles spread to one's environment (such as to clothes, shoes, bathroom, etc.) whether through scratching, falling, or rubbing off, not only can they infect other people, they can also reinfect (or further infect) the host they came from. For example, infected feet infest one's socks and shoes which further expose the feet to the fungi and its spores when worn again.
The ease with which the fungi spread to other areas of the body (on one's fingers) poses another complication. When the fungi are spread to other parts of the body, they can easily be spread back to the feet after the feet have been treated. And because the condition is called something else in each place it takes hold (e.g., tinea corporis (ringworm) or tinea cruris (jock itch)), persons infected may not be aware it is the same disease.
Some individuals may experience an allergic response to the fungus called an id reaction in which blisters or vesicles can appear in areas such as the hands, chest, and arms. Treatment of the underlying infection typically results in the disappearance of the id reaction.
There are several lifestyle modifications that can be practiced to prevent athlete's foot and reduce recurrence. Effective foot hygiene measures that can prevent recurrence include keeping the feet dry; keeping toenails short; using a separate nail clipper for infected toenails; using socks made from well ventilated cotton or synthetic moisture wicking materials; avoiding tight fitting footwear, changing socks frequently; and wearing sandals while walking through communal areas such as gym showers and locker rooms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Nails should be clipped short and kept clean. Nails can house and spread the infection." Recurrence of athlete's foot can be prevented with the use of antifungal powder on the feet.
The fungi that cause athlete's foot require warmth and moisture to survive and grow. There is an increased risk of infection with exposure to warm, moist environments (e.g., occlusive footwear—shoes or boots that enclose the feet) and in shared humid environments such as communal showers, shared pools, and treatment tubs. Chlorine bleach is a disinfectant that kills fungi. Cleaning surfaces with a chlorine bleach solution prevents the disease from spreading from subsequent contact. Cleaning bathtubs, showers, bathroom floors, sinks, and counters with bleach helps prevent the spread of the disease, including reinfection.
Keeping socks and shoes clean is one way to prevent fungi from taking hold and spreading. Avoiding the sharing of boots and shoes is another way to prevent transmission. Athlete's foot can be transmitted by sharing footwear with an infected person. Hand-me-downs and purchasing used shoes are other forms of shoe-sharing. Not sharing also applies to towels, because, though less common, fungi can be passed along on towels, especially damp ones.
Conventional treatment typically involves thoroughly washing the feet daily or twice daily, followed by the application of a topical medication. Because the outer skin layers are damaged and susceptible to reinfection, topical treatment generally continues until all layers of the skin are replaced, about 2-6 weeks after symptoms disappear. Keeping feet dry and practicing good hygiene (as described in the above section on prevention) is crucial for killing the fungus and preventing reinfection.
Treating the feet is not always enough. Once socks or shoes are infested with fungi, wearing them again can reinfect (or further infect) the feet. Socks can be effectively cleaned in the wash by adding bleach. Washing with bleach may help with shoes, but the only way to be absolutely certain that one cannot contract the disease again from a particular pair of shoes is to dispose of those shoes.
To be effective, treatment includes all infected areas (such as toenails, hands, torso, etc.). Otherwise, the infection it may continue to spread, including back to treated areas. For example, leaving fungal infection of the nail untreated, may allow it to spread back to the rest of the foot, to become athlete's foot once again.
Severe or prolonged fungal skin infections may require treatment with oral antifungal medication.
There are many topical antifungal drugs useful in the treatment of athlete's foot including: miconazole nitrate, clotrimazole, tolnaftate (a synthetic thiocarbamate), terbinafine hydrochloride, butenafine hydrochloride and undecylenic acid. The fungal infection may be treated with topical antifungal agents, which can take the form of a spray, powder, cream, or gel. Topical application of an antifungal cream such as terbinafine once daily for one week or butenafine once daily for two weeks is effective in most cases of athlete's foot and is more effective than application of miconazole or clotrimazole. Plantar-type athlete's foot is more resistant to topical treatments due to the presence of thickened hyperkeratotic skin on the sole of the foot. Keratolytic and humectant medications such as urea, salicyclic acid, and lactic acid are useful adjunct medications and improve penetration of antifungal agents into the thickened skin. Topical glucocorticoids are sometimes prescribed to alleviate inflammation and itching associated with the infection.
For severe or refractory cases of athlete's foot oral terbinafine is more effective than griseofulvin. Fluconazole or itraconazole may also be taken orally for severe athlete's foot infections. The most commonly reported adverse effect from these medications is gastrointestinal upset.
Athlete's foot ranges from asymptomatic (no signs or symptoms) to mild to very severe infection. How long it lasts ranges from a few days to many years. It commonly recurs.
Globally, fungal infections affect about 15% of the population and affects one out of five adults. Athlete's foot is common in individuals who wear occlusive shoes. Studies have demonstrated that men are infected 2–4 times more often than women.
- Hypha – long, branching filamentous structure of a fungus. In most fungi, hyphae are the main mode of vegetative growth, and are collectively called a mycelium. Hyphae grow at their tips.
- Keratin – family of fibrous structural proteins. Keratin is the key structural material making up the outer layer of human skin. It is also the key structural component of hair and nails.
- Mycelium – vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae.
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