An introduction to athlete's foot
Athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis, is a type of fungal skin infection that is also considered to be a variant of ringworm. As the name might suggest, the condition usually occurs in athletes, or those who engage in a lot of physical activity.
The infection is normally caused by the candida strain of fungi, which is considered to be harmless in small amounts. However, if the yeast is provided with the correct conditions, it can multiply rapidly, degenerating skin cells and stimulating an episode of athlete’s foot.
Although athlete’s foot is not considered to be a serious or persistent skin infection, it should be treated as soon as possible to avoid any potential complications. If the infection is left untreated, then symptoms can spread to other areas of your body, such as your face, scalp and even groin.
The causes of athlete's foot
When most people think of fungi, they think of mushrooms or plant fungi; however fungi can live in the human body, performing useful and necessary digestive functions.
Candida albicans, for example, is a type of fungal yeast that aids in the absorption of certain nutrients and can support your digestive system. Normally this strain of fungal yeast is harmless as their reproduction is limited by certain biological factors.
However if Candida albicans is given the right conditions or influenced by certain dietary factors, then the it can grow exponentially and become a systemic issue, affecting other areas of your body such as your skin.
It is important to be able to identify the potential causes of athlete’s foot in order to take preventative steps towards avoiding the infection or to reduce any existing symptoms.
- Weak immune system: It has already been mentioned that you can inhale microscopic spores through your respiratory system, which is why some fungal infections can start in the chest. A strong and healthy immune system would be able to attack this infection and protect your body from the pathogens. However, if your immune system has been weakened, either through certain dietary and lifestyle factors or because of a pre-existing health condition, it will not be able to mount a proper counterattack against the invaders and will instead become overwhelmed and sluggish. This can then cause more problems if you have a candida overgrowth in your gut, as the yeast can secrete a nasty by-product called acetaldehyde. This waste product can be very damaging for the immune system as it encourages the growth of free-radicals. If your immune system is already fatigued, it may not be able to cope with fighting this toxin
- Poor nutrition: It is thought that any internal troubles experienced by your body will eventually manifest themselves on your skin, and this certainly can be the case with fungal skin infections like athlete’s foot. If you are consuming food products that are rich in inflammatory chemicals, such as processed fats, caffeine or alcohol, then your immune system will eventually become exhausted and malnourished. Refined sugars can also play a significant role in trigger an outbreak of athlete’s foot by encouraging the growth unfriendly bacteria in your gut. When the balance between your friendly and unfriendly bacteria becomes too one-sided, it can result in a candida overgrowth, as your friendly bacteria is usually responsible for monitoring the population of the candida yeast
- Stress: Stress in and of itself is unlikely to be an outright cause of athlete’s foot, however it can play a role in critically weakening your immune system. When you experience stress, your sympathetic nervous system is stimulated which results in the release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine and adrenalin. Your blood pressure is elevated as your body anticipates that you will be engaging in a ‘fight or flight’ scenario and your blood sugar levels can also be escalated. This is can be the real kick in the teeth if your stress is actually being caused by an existing fungal skin infection – candida yeast feeds off sugar, so you are essentially pouring more fuel on the fire and exaggerating your existing physical symptoms. Not only this, but you are also weakening your immune system and digestive system at the same time
- Direct or indirect contact: In most cases of athlete’s foot, direct or indirect contact can be a power factor influencing the spread of the disease. Simply sharing a towel or clothing, or coming into close contact with another carrier can cause the disease to spread. Certain environments such as swimming pools or sauna’s can cause fungal infections to spread, so it is worth protecting your feet in these surroundings as the feet are normally the first point of contact for the infection. Nevertheless, if left untreated; athlete’s foot can spread to other areas of the body, such as your hands or nails, so it is important to be mindful of these areas as well
- Poor hygiene: Not only will your feet start to smell if you don’t wash them, but you are also providing the perfect growing conditions for candida yeast to multiple on your skin. You should be washing your feet and socks every single day, otherwise the warm, sweaty environment of your sport shoes acts as a catalyst, causing the organisms to multiply and thrive
- Soil: We’re not trying to imply that you wander barefoot over your neighbour’s flowerbeds, but soil can be a mild perpetuator of athlete’s foot. The risk of contagion is not as high as other variants of ringworm, simply because it is rare for our feet to come into direct contact with the offending culprit but soil can be a breeding ground for the Candida albicans strain of fungi, so it would be best to avoid places where these fungal spores can come into contract with your skin
- Medication: Certain types of medication can make you more susceptible to a fungal skin infection. For example, some antibiotics actually attack the good bacteria in your gut. This bacteria is responsible for regulating the population of Candida yeast and, when it is removed, the yeast can grow uninhibited, sometimes developing into a systemic issue. There is also evidence to suggest that the Oral Contraceptive Pill can influence the growth of the Candida yeast as well as they can interact with other factors, such as diet and additional medication, making you more vulnerable to a yeast infection.1
The symptoms of athlete's foot
Athlete’s foot, to put it mildly, is not pretty. The symptoms are visible and difficult to ignore, often appearing soon after you contract the infection although they can vary in severity.
It is always best to try and treat athlete’s foot as soon as you notice any signs appearing as if the infection is left untreated it can result in complications such as septicaemia.
- Brittle skin: In an episode of athlete’s foot, the skin between your toes is likely to become dry and brittle, as the fungal yeast attacks your healthy skin cells. This can result in flaky skin that is prone to itching and inflammation
- Inflammation: Inflammation and swelling will often occur due to your immune system. When the immune system realises that the body is under attack, it will release a rush of inflammatory chemicals to attack the infection and dilate the blood vessels, in order to accelerate the healing process. This dilation of the blood vessels, is often why skin can appear red and angry looking to the naked eye
- Itchiness: If your skin is dry and inflamed, then there is bound to be some irritation. Itchiness is a common symptom of most fungal skin infections and it can pose a serious threat. If you are continually scratching your skin, you are damaging the epidermis and making yourself vulnerable to further bacterial infections, which will have an easier time permeating your skin and overwhelming your immune system
- Blistering: Small, painful blisters have been known to appear in particularly painful cases of athletes foot. These normally manifest in between your toes or on the sole of your foot, and they can be extremely uncomfortable. However, under no circumstances should you pick away at a blister, as this can weaken your skin and allow other pathogens to enter your immune system through your epidermis
- Skin discolouration: Skin discolouration is a common feature of fungal skin infections like athlete’s foot. Often, the skin surrounding your nails can become yellowish, even affecting the pigmentation of the nail itself. Your skin may even appear paler in places where it has become dryer or damaged, with silvery flakes breaking away from the weakened skin cells
- Stress: If you are suffering from an outbreak of athlete’s foot, then you will probably find that your stress levels are also being affected by the infection. This is understandable but you should still try to take steps to avoid becoming too distressed as it can enable your physical symptoms and weaken your immune system.
There are a number of preventative steps you can take to avoid contracting the fungal infection. It is important though, that if your symptoms become more persistent or serious, that you speak to your doctor as soon as possible.
- Relax: Stress can be disastrous for your immune and digestive systems, as well as your sleeping pattern, so it is important to remember to keep calm during this time. Don’t feel guilty about taking some time out of your day to day routine to focus on yourself – this isn’t about you being selfish or lazy, this is simply about looking after yourself. Indulge in activities that you find soothing or relaxing, such as reading a good book or watching your favourite film. You could even try taking up yoga or tai-chi as both exercises promote proper breathing techniques and teach you how to lower your stress levels in times of pressure or tension
- Good nutrition: The adverse effects of poor nutrition have already been discussed at length, so let’s talk about the positive changes that you can make to your diet that may relieve the symptoms of your fungal infection. It’s important that you make a considerable effort to reduce the quantity of refined sugars in your diet, so if you feel the urge to reach for a bar of chocolate or a slice of cake, you could consider a bag of dry fruit, or check out some of our guilt free recipes as a pleasant alternative. Try to include more anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory foods into your diet – you can do this by incorporating more onions, garlic and ginger into your meals. If you feel a bit adrift without your usual cup of tea or coffee, you could always try using a caffeine-free substitute like Bambu, or exploring herbal teas. Green teas and ginger teas are rich in anti-oxidants that can strengthen and support the immune system, as well as your skin cells!
- Practice good hygiene: This should go without saying, but you should be washing your feet regularly. This will discourage the yeast from reproducing and may prevent you from contracting the infection from another carrier. It is also important to clean your clothes, socks and shoes, as spores can still flourish in these areas, waiting to permeate your skin when they come into contact with it. A good idea might be to consider bathing your feet in salt water, as salt acts as a natural anti-sceptic and can destroy any harmful spores.
- Footwear: Wearing sandals will expose your feet to the light and allow them to breath, rather than keeping them enclosed in a dark, humid environment. The fungi will find it difficult to multiply in these conditions, so it should weaken the hold of the infection and reduce any painful or uncomfortable symptoms. It might also be worth wearing protective footwear such as swimming socks, or sandals when you visit your local pool, as changing rooms in this environment are the perfect breeding ground for fungi and bacteria
- Coconut oil: Coconut oil is a natural anti-fungal and anti-bacterial substance, which can be applied directly to your feet to nourish dry or damaged skin cells. Not only is it great for encouraging your immune system, it can also protect your feet against any further bacterial infections and treat the Candida overgrowth. Your Health Food Store stock a range of coconut oil products which are all natural and 100% organic
- Corn starch and water: The strain of fungus responsible for athlete’s foot requires humid, damp conditions to survive. Corn starch is excellent at absorbing moisture and making a paste using corn starch and water can help to deprive the fungi of what it needs to survive, preventing the infection from spreading and reducing the severity of any symptoms
- Apple cider vinegar: Apple cider vinegar is an excellent home treatment for athlete’s foot as it works directly to kill the root of the infection, the Candida yeast. You could try soaking your feet in a diluted apple vinegar solution, one part water and three parts vinegar, as well as applying the remedy topically by dabbing over the affected area. Your Health Food Store offer a range of apple cider vinegar products if you are interested in this solution
- Plain yoghurt: We don’t mean have a Müller-corner, or indulge in an Activia fruit pot - in fact we don’t mean you to ingest any yoghurt at all. Plain yoghurt can be useful though, at controlling the fungal spores, especially if it contains live bacteria. Apply the yoghurt to your feet, not your mouth and leave it on for at least ten minutes before washing off.
There are a number of herbal remedies available to treat fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, however it is important to consult your doctor if your symptoms change or do not improve.
- Neem Cream: Neem Cream may not work to treat the source of your infection, the candida yeast, but it may relieve some of the irritation and itchiness associated with the affliction. Neem has been used for centuries in the treatment of dry, aggravated skin conditions and it can work to nourish damaged skin cells and restore some hydration to your epidermis. Just be aware that this remedy may not be suitable if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or suffer from a nut allergy
- Echinaforce®: Echinaforce® will not work to ease to your external symptoms but it can be useful for strengthening your immune system and promoting healthy immune function, usually being recommended to ward off viral infections like the common cold. Echinaforce is suitable for children over the age of 12 but is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, or those who plan on operating heavy machinery
- Molkosan®: Fungal infections can often originate the gut. This is because your gut normally contains a small amount of the candida fungus, usually in the form a yeast commonly used to break down certain food products. This yeast can start to reproduce drastically when our levels of good bacteria are lowered. Molkosan® acts as a natural pre-biotic, working to increase the levels of friendly bacteria in our gut, regulating the reproduction of yeast in your digestive tract
- Spilanthes: Spilanthes can work topically or internally as a natural anti-fungal agent, and is made from extracts of the spilanthes oleracea flowering herb. It is normally taken as a tincture and can be used alongside Molkosan to improve the overall health of the digestive system.
If you find that other remedies and solutions are unsuccessful at alleviating your symptoms, then it might be worthwhile speaking to your doctor.
In some cases they may refer you to a specialist that will give you advice on further treatments; however here are a few of the most common conventional medicines that your doctor may prescribe.
- Anti-fungal cream / powder: Anti-fungal creams or powders can bought over the counter at most pharmacies or health shops and are commonly used as the first line of defence, applied to the infected areas of the feet. It is normal to keep using these creams or powders for over a week, however if they do not reduce or ease symptoms then it is important to consult your GP
- Steroid cream: If basic anti-fungal creams or powders do not work, then you may be advised to use a slightly stronger steroid cream. These work to reduce inflammation but they should not be taken consistently over a long period of time
- Tablets: If your symptoms continue to persist then it is likely that your doctor will prescribe you stronger anti-fungal medication, such as Itraconazole, which should be taken exactly as your doctor specifies. It also worth noting that some of these medications can cause side-effects, which why it is important to discuss any treatment that you are receiving with your doctor, in order to minimalise any potential health risks.