What is it?

Athlete’s foot is an infection on the foot caused by fungus. Athlete’s foot is identified by dry, cracked skin, most often in the toe area. Clients may complain of burning and itching, and the skin can become so irritated that it breaks open and bleeds. Often a foul odor is associated with the infection, and a thick, creamy substance can form under the nails. In advanced cases, the nails may flake, appear discolored, and become thick.

How do you get it?

About 70% of the population will experience athlete’s foot at some point in their lives. Runners, swimmers, and dancers are more likely to suffer from athlete’s foot, as well as people who wear shoes that are too tight (causing the toes to squish together). The fungus that causes athlete’s foot exists on floors (think locker rooms), and it spreads easily through contact. Exposure to the fungus does not guarantee its growth; conditions must be right for the fungus to spread. The toes provide an ideal condition because they shelter moisture.

How is it treated?

The good news is that athlete’s foot is treatable. Most cases of athlete’s foot can be treated at home using an over-the-counter antifungal medicine. In addition, sufferers should wash their feet daily. After washing, it’s imperative to thoroughly dry the area between the toes. A medicated, over-the-counter foot powder is recommended to keep the area dry. Patients should wear socks made of material that wicks the moisture from the skin. Shoes made of natural materials are preferred to materials that don’t allow the area to “breathe.” If these steps are ineffective, a doctor will be able to prescribe a more aggressive treatment, such as a prescription antifungal cream or an antibiotic.

What can a tech do?

Techs need to be on guard against athlete’s foot: It’s likely they will be exposed to it, it spreads easily, and it could trick techs because it can look like dry skin. Always use hospital-grade disinfectant to clean implements and the foot bath before and after every client just in case. Most likely the tech won’t be aware a client has athlete’s foot until she is already soaking in a foot bath. Maintain your professionalism, but broach the topic with your client. You could begin by saying something such as, “It looks like you have dry skin around your toes. Have you noticed this? Have you ever seen a doctor to determine if it’s athlete’s foot?” You may need to refuse treatment until the condition has cleared to avoid putting other clients at risk.

What else?

Unlike athlete’s foot, eczema is a non-infectious, non contagious, inflamed skin condition. Yet telling the difference between athlete’s foot and eczema can be difficult because both conditions can trigger identical symptoms. The location of the symptoms provides a few clues. Eczema usually appears in other places on the body besides the feet. Affected skin between the toes, especially the fourth and fifth toes, usually indicates athlete’s foot. Cracked and red skin on top of the foot or on top of the toes points to eczema.

Melissa Conrad Stöppler, M.D. contributed to this article.

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