Athlete’s Foot vs. Contact Dermatitis
April happens to be National Foot Health Awareness month, and it also happens to be the time of year when many people dust off their running shoes to enjoy a sunny day outside. Unfortunately, that's also when foot problems often come up. It’s easy to take our feet, the foundational body parts that move us through our day, for granted. But if that foundation becomes red, itchy and irritated then suddenly your feet will be all you’re able to think about.
Two common causes of irritated skin on your feet are athlete’s foot and contact dermatitis. While both foot conditions have overlapping symptoms (and thus could be easy to misdiagnose), they result from very different causes. We’ll walk you through the symptoms, treatment and prevention tips for each so you can take proper steps to keep the skin on your feet healthy and irritation-free.
What Is Athlete’s Foot?
Athlete’s foot (also called tinea pedis) is a surface fungal infection that irritates the skin on your feet. This type of fungus grows best in warm, moist conditions, such as the areas between the toes. It’s one of the most common fungal infections that affect humans, and it spreads easily. You can contract athlete’s foot by coming into contact with an infected person or with contaminated objects or surfaces, such as a locker room floor, towels or shoes.
The condition can affect people of all ages, though it’s more common in adults than children and more common in men than women. If you live in a humid climate or if you have a weakened immune system then you may be more at risk of contracting athlete’s foot. If you frequent areas where lots of people walk barefoot, such as swimming pools and locker room gyms, then you are at higher risk of infection.
The areas most likely to be affected by athlete’s foot are the spaces between your toes, although the soles and tops of your feet can be affected too. The specific type of fungus that causes a case of athlete’s foot will determine the exact symptoms and the area of your foot most impacted. Common symptoms include redness, a scaly rash, itching, stinging and burning. More severe forms of athlete’s foot can cause very painful blisters and ulcers. What’s called the “moccasin” form of athlete’s foot causes severe dryness and scales on the soles and up the sides of your feet, and this variety might most resemble contact dermatitis.
Athlete’s Foot Prevention and Treatment
There are several simple steps you can take to try to avoid an unpleasant spell of dealing with athlete’s foot.
- Don’t wear tight-fitting athletic shoes that trap sweat against your skin. Such shoes create a perfect environment for fungi to thrive. Instead wear shoes that give your toes plenty of space and are made of breathable materials that allow good ventilation (ahem... such as Softstars).
- Avoid walking barefoot in public high-traffic areas where a lot of other people have been walking without shoes. This includes locker rooms, public showers, and public pool areas. Try wearing sandals in such areas, and clean the sandals regularly.
- Don’t share socks, shoes or towels with other people. It’s common on sports teams to perhaps borrow such items from each other, but it’s best to be prepared ahead of time and keep back-up items on hand in your locker or backpack so you don’t have to risk catching anything.
- Wash and dry your feet (including between your toes) every morning and evening, especially if you’ve been physically active.
- Change socks daily, plus after you’re physically active and sweating, and let shoes dry between uses if they’re sweaty or wet.
- Take special care to follow these prevention steps if you’re on an antibiotic. Antibiotic medications can kill off the beneficial skin bacteria that normally help control the fungus that causes athlete’s foot.
If you do contract a case of athlete’s foot then it is best to start treatment as soon as possible. There are many over-the-counter anti-fungal creams, sprays and powders that normally do the trick. In addition, keep following the prevention steps listed above, such as wearing ventilated shoes and keeping your feet clean and dry so that you’re depriving the fungi of its ideal environment. If your skin is peeling then try not to peel and pick at it. You might create open sores that could expose you to a secondary type of infection. If you have an advanced case of athlete’s foot or if over-the-counter treatments aren’t working then you should seek the advice of a medical professional. If anti-fungal medications aren’t eliciting improvement, it might also be a sign that you’re dealing with another type of condition such as contact dermatitis.
What Is Contact Dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis is a response your skin has to a specific irritant or allergy. It's possible the irritant could be innocuous to other people, but still trigger a reaction for you. Unlike athlete’s foot, which is caused by common fungal strains, contact dermatitis may be caused by a wide number of sources ranging from soaps and fragrances to chemicals and certain types of metals. “Irritant” contact dermatitis can onset very quickly after coming into contact with the offending material while “allergy” contact dermatitis may take up to a week for symptoms to appear.
Contact dermatitis occurs more frequently in adults than children, and it can occur virtually anywhere on your body... wherever your skin comes into contact with the irritant or allergen. Contact dermatitis can certainly occur on your feet, which come into contact with many surfaces throughout the day, especially in warm weather when you’re likely to be barefoot more often. If you experience contact dermatitis on your feet, symptoms may include redness, itchiness, a patchy or scaly rash, dry and cracked skin, bumps and blisters, swelling, burning, and/or tenderness.
In some cases, Contact dermatitis may be a reaction to chemicals and materials commonly used in footwear. In athletic shoes, for instance, dyes used in soling material have been known to cause contact dermatitis in some people. If a person is allergic or sensitive to shoe chemicals and materials then that sensitivity may be exacerbated by the warm and damp conditions inside the shoe. This can lead to rash-like symptoms on the skin that could appear similar to the symptoms of athlete’s foot.
Contact Dermatitis Prevention and Treatment
Like going on an elimination diet to determine whether you have a food allergy, with contact dermatitis you’ll want to eliminate exposure to common irritants to determine what triggered the initial reaction. Here are some tips on pinpointing the cause of your symptoms.
- Consider all substances your feet have come into contact with in recent days. For instance, what creams, lotions, body washes or soaps have you used? Try eliminating them or switching to all-natural, unscented versions.
- Consider all surfaces you’ve walked on and what cleaners have been used on those surfaces. The chemicals or fragrances in cleaning products could be a source of irritation for you.
- Consider the laundry soap used to wash your socks. Like floor cleaners, the fragrances or other ingredients used in the soap could be the culprit.
- Try switching to footwear made with natural materials, such as Softstar’s soft leather shoes, to eliminate any potential irritants posed by synthetic materials and the high-chemical manufacturing processes of most commercial footwear. All leather used for Softstar shoes is tanned without formaldehyde and colored with non-toxic food grade dye. For an extra level of chemical-free "naked" leather, check out our Vegetable-Tanned options.
- For athletes, athletic tape, especially brands that contain rubber or latex, may be an irritant. If you tape your fee frequently then you may want to try switching brands or types of tape.
- Determine whether your feet have come into contact with any metals. Nickel, for example, is a common irritant. Consider clasps and buckles on shoes that may come into contact with your skin.
- Rule out whether your feet have come into contact with any new plants, or with plants known to cause contact dermatitis, such as poison oak.
- Ironically, an overuse of antifungal creams applied to treat athlete’s foot can actually cause contact dermatitis in certain individuals. If you try an antifungal cream and it doesn’t help the condition, or if the condition even seems to be getting worse, seek the advice of a medical professional.
The most obvious form of treatment for contact dermatitis is simply avoiding coming into contact with irritants. You can also try using cold compresses to help with the immediate symptoms of burning and itching of your feet. Your doctor may recommend other treatment options as well, such as corticosteroids or antihistamines.
Overall Foot Health Tips
As you carefully consider your symptoms as well as the surfaces and substances your feet have come into contact with to determine your next best steps, there are some general foot health practices to keep in mind. Whether you have a case of athlete’s foot or contact dermatitis—or you’re trying to prevent them—it’s always a good idea to practice good foot hygiene, avoid high-germ areas, use natural products free of dyes and synthetic fragrances and treat your feet to the good life by wearing breathable, natural footwear.
While we are shoemakers who are passionate about foot health, we are not doctors and cannot prescribe medical advice. We recommend you consult your health care practitioner to develop a treatment plan for any foot condition.
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