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What's the Diagnosis: Dry Skin or Athlete's Foot?

Think someone wiht athlete's foot would never come in for a pedicure? Think again. What you and your clients desdribe and treat as dry skin might actually be a mild, but still contagious, case of athlete's foot.

If several weeks of consistent treatment with an OTC antifungal cream doesn’t improve the condition, it may be time to switch to moisturizers. The Joslin-Beth Israel Deaconess Foot Center in Boston recommends slathering the feet in moisturizer immediately after bathing to seal in moisture absorbed.

While Drs. Pribut and Soltani defer to the individual’s preference in selecting a moisturizer, there are some differences between formulations that may guide your choice.Ointment moisturizers such as Aquaphor work best at retaining moisture in the skin, but some people don’t like the heavy, greasy consistency. Oil moisturizers are a less greasy but effective option. Next come creams, which rub into the skin without leaving a greasy residue. Lotions are the lightest, most popular form of moisturizer, but doctors caution that some contain alcohol, which can contribute to dryness. Even so, Dr. Pribut firmly believes in allowing patients to choose because they’ll be more likely to use it as directed.

If thickened, flaking skin is a particular problem, he does, however advise patients to consider a moisturizer formulated with alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), lactic acid, ammonium lactate, or urea, all ingredients that speed the sloughing of excess dead skin. If symptoms don’t respond to athlete’s foot creams or intensive moisturizers or at least begin to improve within a few weeks, it’s time for a second opinion. Conditions such as eczema, allergic reaction, and atopic dermatitis also can mimic the symptoms of dry skin but require a doctor’s diagnosis and treatment.

Not an Easy Call

Sometimes even doctors have a hard time making the call between a simple case of dry skin and athlete’s foot. Compare the symptoms to understand why.


• Patches of dry, flaky skin

• Itching

• Cracks

• Redness (which can indicate further irritation or bacterial infection)


• Patches of thickened, flaky dead skin

• Itching

• Cracks or fissures

• Redness or inflammation

• Blisters or open sores

• Raw, inflamed skin

Other Look-Alike Conditions

Simple dry skin and athlete’s foot are the most common causes of itchy, flaky feet, but they are by no means the only ones — just see the list of other foot conditions (and the sometimes subtle differences doctors will look for) below. If symptoms don’t at least start to improve in a week or two with self-treatment, it’s time to consult a dermatologist or podiatrist.

Eczema: differentiated by red, oozing, painful patches

Contact dermatitis: differentiated by redness and swelling, location, oozing, or draining lesions

Dishydrosis: differentiated by small blisters, deep itching and burning, peeling, cracking, and crusting

Psoriasis: differentiated by patchy, raised skin plaques; pain

Once you give athlete’s foot the boot, podiatrists recommend taking preventive measures against new infections. Urge your clients to follow these simple steps:

Stop Athlete’s Foot in Its Tracks

• Wash feet thoroughly with soap and water each day.

• Towel-dry feet completely, including between the toes, after bathing. Some doctors even go so far as to recommend blow-drying the feet.

• Trade 100% cotton socks for ones made of moisture-wicking materials.

• Buy at least two pairs of well-fitted shoes and alternate wear to allow them to dry and air out.

• Sprinkle an antifungal powder (baby powder works just as well, says Dr. Soltani) inside shoes each morning to absorb excess moisture.

• Change socks one or more times each day.


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