This article discusses various medical and alternative ways to treat, heal and/ or prevent athlete’s foot. You will also learn how to take better care of your feet and prevent reinfection. This article is written based on my own frustrating journey with this pesky infection a few months earlier this year. What a way to end the season!
I wasn’t quite sure how my little feet were going to hold up after the hard work of Dingle marathon because by now I suspected that I had athlete’s foot and the trauma of a marathon certainly wasn’t going to help!
Foot care is something that most athletes let slip, we only pay attention when something goes wrong. At best we give the toes a better pat dry on the days we have a little more time. This is NOT foot care!
Everything is great until it isn’t; ain’t that the truth! I practice good foot care (or so I thought): I always dry my toes properly especially after swimming; I am a clean person; I wash my socks and shoes often; I am always sticking my feet on my boyfriends lap for a foot rub and on occasion I will give the feet a nice little stretch. Well, this isn’t proper foot care. At least is wasn’t enough to prevent me running in to problems with a nasty little athlete’s foot infection despite what we all would consider adequate prevention.
So at aged 43 I got my first athletes foot infection and I will attest to this being a little bitch of fire and hell. I have never experienced such mind-blowing heat and burning in my feet and it went on for weeks despite a very heavy hitting and comprehensive approach.
I was disgusted at myself and my foot for catching this infection; in fact embarrassed too. But when you read the literature it is very common, very stubborn, and spreads rapidly around places where there is wet, damp or warmth and yes you have it; bare feet!
It’s quite common
Apparently 25% of us have athletes foot which means that I can point the finger at 1 in 4 of you at the pool and wonder are you the one with athlete’s foot? 1 in 4 in the changing rooms, or 1 in 4 at the race start standing in bare feet before we plummet into the sea on leg one of the triathlon.
[Here is an article on athlete’s foot from The Mayo Clinic. Things to watch out for that may confuse the issue are contact dermatitis and red flags for medical assessment is a bacterial infection in the skin in addition to fungal infection which can happen from skin scratching or trauma.]
Like I said I am very careful with my feet so imagine my horror when one week after I was standing right here at the race start of Ironman 70.3 Dunlaoghaire I noticed insane inflammation and itchy-scratchies on my feet and the tell-tale peeling skin in between my toes. And when I say insane I mean no sleep packing ice-packs on my feet to cool them down in the middle of the night insane itching to stop them burning like hell. (FYI don’t scratch your feet this only spread the problem and may cause you to pick an infection up under your fingernails and then spread it on to the other feet or even your hands.
Who is the culprit?
I should have paid attention to the early warning signs
I didn’t take it seriously enough at the start and tried some lavender oil and natural foot balms (Vicks vaporub is normally brilliant to treat athletes foot!) that I had at home and added in an anti-fungal shoe powder.
I only had 2 weeks before a marathon; yeah the excuses we give ourselves to not have the time to address health niggles as they arise. Suffice to say not treating the fungal infection strongly enough led to my body mounting an allergic reaction to the fungus on my skin and I ended up sorry as my poor little toes blistered up. It sounds rather dramatic and by comparison my toes were not really that bad; but the discomfort was sufficient to make me very unhappy.
I believe that when we are vulnerable to health problems, whether it is a cough or cold, or virus like a cold sore or infection like a chest infection or a fungal skin infection like I am writing about here; it is not so much about the infectious agent as it is about our constitution. We are the weakest link.
You see we are surrounded by these things: bugs, fungi, yeast, and viruses. So it is not so much that we can finger point and blame them; rather it is something related to our constitution and immune system that allows the infection in.
You and I fall susceptible when we aren’t on top of our immune systems, or when stress leaves a vulnerable window in us and gives the bugs the chance to invade. They are opportunists after all.
So we must always ask the question, what was it about me, that let this happen? And now, what do I do?
So, I had two back to back races and my immune system may have been a little low, I was exposed to the infectious agent this time a fungus which may have been one of the species of Trichophyton, Epidermophyton, and Microsporum. Boom, it had a field day.
I started to take it seriously when it wasnt going anywhere with normal foot hygiene and natural creams. It just got angrier and angrier and I felt frustrated and may have even had a cry. I actually believe that what happened to me is that I had infection and allergy to the fungus going on at the same time and this is why I had such an angry reaction going on. It didn’t look all that bad, but the intense FIRE in my feet was sufficient for me to take notice.
Recommendations to treat, heal, and prevent athlete’s foot
So, in the name of healing my foot, and bringing some education and awareness to you the reader and also my clients here is a little summary of the strategies used.
It has taken over 2 months to make decent headway. This stretched me above and beyond patience. I was asking myself what does this all mean? In terms of health, in terms of my immune system, and in terms of some deeper metaphysical-spiritual journey.
The body was asking for attention, rest, and patience.Andrea
Foot baths that are anti-fungal and anti-septic
Foot baths are very helpful for treating athlete’s foot. You can simply use water as hot as you can tolerate with added salt, or added bicarbonate of soda, or added apple cider vinegar (or them all) or use anti-fungal aromatherapy oils such as one or a blend of tea tree, thyme, oregano, lavender, eucalyptus, geranium, clove, cinnamon, lemon grass, palmarosa or peppermint. Oregano soap is also helpful.
In olden days potassium permanganate foot bath or iodine foot bath would have been used. I did not chase finding these ingredients. Excess use of either is not recommended, especially iodine which is absorbed systemically and can potentially interfere with the thyroid gland.
Let the feet soak, then dry them off very well and if you can leave them breathe and wear flip-flops around the house instead of shoes, or place some tissue between the toes for a while to encourage them to stay dry. Allowing the feet to cool and stay cold will limit itching and burning. Keep the shoes off for as long as you can.
Medicated treatment for healing athlete’s foot
Topical medicated treatment I have learnt is really your best strategy for curing this issue. I should know this I am a pharmacist, I am also a little stubborn and prefer to use natural remedies first.
A medicated cream containing terbinafine (Lamisil) is recommended. Apply twice a day for a treatment period of 4 to 6 weeks. Treat until everything is clear and for another week after this. Why? To ensure the fungus is fully clear. Your best bet is to get a prescription for the 30g tube of Lamisil as you will need this volume of cream for the treatment course. Please ensure that you are using the cream as recommended twice a day; my GP only wrote once a day down on my prescription.
As a pharmacist I was surprised at how long it took for treatment to take effect; have patience.
A meta-analysis by Rotta et al. evaluated the efficacy of antifungal treatment involving 14 different topical antifungals and included 65 randomized controlled trials (RCTs), comparing topical antifungal with one another or with placebo.
Efficacy was evaluated in the form of mycological cure at the end of treatment and sustained cure. They found no statistically significant differences among the antifungals concerning the outcome of mycologic cure at the end of treatment.
For sustained cure, butenafine and terbinafine each was found to be superior to clotrimazole. Pairwise comparison of topical antifungals for the outcome of fungal cure showed butenafine and terbinafine each to be superior to clotrimazole, oxiconazole, and sertaconazole; terbinafine to be superior to ciclopirox, and naftifine to be superior to oxiconazole.
Taken from Management of tinea corporis, tinea cruris, and tinea pedis: A comprehensive review Indian Dermatol Online J. 2016 Mar-Apr; 7(2): 77–86.doi: 10.4103/2229-5178.178099 PMCID: PMC4804599PMID: 27057486
I tried to do things the natural way and I was frustrated by progress and astonished by how many approaches appeared to create an allergic response in my feet with more heat, burning and blistering. I also found that my feet did not at all like the Lamisil once topical treatment. My skin reacted badly to it with more intense symptoms; can I blame the product? No, because I don’t know what was the natural course of this infection for me. Speaking personally however I won’t be using the Lamisil once again; I feel that the alcohol base was too harsh .
My feet reacted to the Daktarin powder also; they flared up badly. I don’t know whether this is due to the medication or the talc ingredients; but we do know that miconazole is less effective than terbinafine so this powder really isn’t worth using unless you do find it already helpful. As you can read farther down there are alternative preventative strategies than using this foot powder.
What about anti-fungal tablets for athlete’s foot?
Oral anti-fungal treatment is an option but it is quite harsh on the body (notably the liver) and so I recommend avoiding unless necessary. Toenail infections are normally the most resistant to topical treatment and so may necessitate oral anti-fungal treatment. Speaking personally I added in several natural strategies to treat my toenails because I did not want to go down the oral medication route.
The toenails are often the problem for many athletes and especially runners. I think some of us have a tendency to raise our toes when running, and if we like a snug shoe this can leave the toenail subject to a bit of a beating racing and trail running. When the nail-bed has trauma or become raised it reduces its resilience to infections and increases the chances of losing a nail.
Yellow, white or crumbling toenails are a warning sign that you may have a fungal nail infection and so should step up your foot care strategy and consider adding in anti-fungal natural treatments as recommended below for the toenails.
Complement extra foot love with frequent shoe and sock washing and maybe even consider a shoe for training that has more toe space so that the nail-bed has a chance to heal.
You may for a while want to apply anti-fungal cream as a preventative before running, cycling, swimming or other sports for example a week or fortnight after the feet clear just to be sure. While treating the skin, be sure to time the application of your anti-fungal cream close to training (when your feet are more vulnerable as they get hot and damp).
Shoes and socks – what to do to prevent athlete’s foot spreading
- One pair of socks per activity or per day; this means frequent sock changing and washing. Never continue to wear the same socks you did for training for the rest of the day. They will be damp and this is a breeding ground for fungi which like it warm and damp.
- Wash socks at 60 degrees C; option to add anti-fungal aromatherapy to the wash. Consider using a biological powder one of the only times that I will say this.
- Switch around your shoes daily to allow shoes to completely dry in between wears.
- Wash your shoes often; again at 60 degrees C. Sprinkle them with baking powder or baking powder mixed with anti-fungal aromatherapy oils in between wears if you prefer. Keep them dry in between wears, dry in a shoe dryer or in a warm dry place.
- If you suspect a pair of shoes as a continual source of reinfection you may need to bin them.
- Wear cotton socks.
- Leave your feet breathe as often as possible; wear flip flops around the house and/ or place tissue between your toes to keep them separate and dry.
- Don’t walk around bare foot.
- Avoid swimming pools until you have cured your infection.
- Start wearing flip-flops at the pool and public changing rooms and showers if you have not already done so.
- Wear shoes or flip-flops or old hotel flip-flops right until the very end before your triathlon swim start to prevent catching infection from others feet.
Washing the socks, shoes and towels often at temperatures of at least 60 C I found to be one of the most effective ways of eliminating the chances of reinfection with athlete's foot. Keep doing this, for several weeks if not months. Click To Tweet
The more you can expose your feet and toes to cool air then better. Limit shoes as best you can while treating your feet. Keep your toes cool and separated if you can (they get intensely itchy when warm).
Don’t walk barefoot.
Keep your feet as cool as possible at night. If they flare up very itchy at night cover them with a cold flannel or ice pack. If the itch won’t go consider an antihistamine or hydrocortisone cream (use sparingly)
Wash everything that can spread the infection
This includes your towels and bed clothes more frequently, at 60 degrees C and with a biological washing powder and maybe add a few drops of tea tree oil or other stronger aromatherapy oil in also.
Don’t go swimming and piss other people’s feet off. it is grossly unfair to spread the infection even further. When you do go back swimming wear flip-flops on the pool deck.
Natural remedies for healing, treating and preventing athlete’s foot
Ok this is where I threw myself head first in from an investigate stance and also out of sheer frustration because so many approaches that I used seemed to cause a reactive flare in my feet. I believe this was due to a heightened sensitivity created by the fungal infection as opposed to the fungal infection itself. I was left with a hyper responsive skin reaction to a lot of things for quite some time. This is why I trialed so many approaches; I just wanted my feet back to happy.
The following recommendations are based on reading around; I would not say that there is a massively high-quality scientific consensus on most treatments here. I was adequately satisfied by the science that I did find in conjunction with the anecdotal stories I read and holistic journalism on various sites (which I will not take at face value without some scientific research also. Scientific research is always going to be lacking when it comes to natural treatments). That said I did find enough to provoke me to trial all the following because I was 100% incentivised to heal my foot problem!
I used all of the following, in this order. I made slow progress and will make comments on what I learnt from each approach.Use a combination of strategies alternated across the day that include medicated anti-fungal creams, herbal tinctures and anti-fungal ointments, salves and oils for the most efficacious strategy to eradicate the athlete's foot fungus. Be… Click To Tweet
Address your immune system. Take a look at your recent life, training balance and stress. Improve your diet to make up for any shortfalls, consider herbs with immune supporting and even systemic anti-fungal effects. I added a custom blend of herbs into my daily strategy to support my immune system which must have been a little depleted after the racing season. I also eased up off training.
Foot baths to treat and soothe athlete’s foot
Foot baths; these rocked. I tested Himalayan salt, baking soda/ bicarbonate, raw apple cider vinegar and aromatherapy oils. I personally found the aromatherapy oils to triggers off irritation despite using a low dilution; this was frustrating because there is good evidence for their benefit and perhaps you will not have this reaction. Be sure to stir the water up and disperse the aromatherapy before putting your feet into the foot bath.
The salt and bicarbonate of salt and apple cider vinegar however worked well. Apparently hotter rather than cooler water allows greater penetration of treatments into the skin. So I stuck with hooter foot baths and then allowed my feet to breathe and cool down for as long as possible afterwards. I avoided closed shoes when I could.
Aromatherapy oils with anti-fungal activity
Aromatherapy oils; everyone knows of tea-tree oil however in clinical studies it is actually not the most potent of oils against the fungus responsible for athlete’s foot.
Here are a list of oils with activity in descending order. I trialed them all as I keep them in my clinic for clients. I used them added to foot baths, sprinkled into bicarbonate of soda to make a shoe powder, and also as a topical treatment blended into a carrier oil.
Initially my foot reacted a little to the oils (and so I had to stop using them for a while) but I find that with time and as my feet have become less reactive the home-blended anti-fungal foot oil is handy to have.
Oregano, Thyme (thymol), Cinnamon, Lemongrass, Clove, Palmarose, Peppermint, Lavender, Geranium Bourbon, Tea tree and Thyme (geraniol) in order of strongest first. I use oils sourced from Young Living (preferred brand), DoTerra and Ressource Naturelles (I love this company and its affordability; they are French).
Manuka honey and manuka oil are anti-fungal
Last year I read some fascinating research on the power of manuka honey versus Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that can cause nasty gut problems. This overturned my skepticism about manuka honey.
It turns out that manuka is also helpful for foot infections and wound healing (there IS research on this). I trialed the manuka oil from Pur360 as had not heard of this form of manuka before and I was curious. The oil is also less messy than using honey!
I found the oil good, but a tad too drying on the skin (i.e. created irritation) so I started to apply it only on the toenails and I believe it is having a positive effect.
Local wildflower honey may be an option instead of expensive manuka and should work similarly and is worth trialing. I would wonder, however, is the local wildflower honey a little less potent.
Natural footbalms against athlete’s foot
The one photographed below, FineVine organics super balm, ticked all the boxes for helpful anti-fungal and healing ingredients and so I purchased two, one to trial and use after sport and the second for leaving in my swim bag as soon as I was able to get back to swimming.
I feel that the oils in this irritated my skin a little because I had some hot foot nights after trialing it. It’s is hard to tell because I reacted to so many things and even the pool in the chlorine may have been the culprit. On the tin this should be a great product and the reviews are positive.
Oregano soap will help to keep to prevent athlete’s foot
As mentioned above this is a handy one for foot washing and to use into the future as part of a foot care strategy. Oregano is mighty powerful stuff; I have learnt to be incredibly cautious using this essential oil directly on the skin without plenty of carrier. This handmade soap from Teliaoils is a handy way to use oregano essential oil and thus far I am impressed by it.
Calendula tincture and oil to treat and prevent athlete’s foot
I am impressed by these two products which I read about here Using these two products after foot washing, the tincture first (NH4L Calendula/ Marigold Herbal Tincture 50ml by Natural Health 4 Life) and then oil (Ringelblumen marigold oil) after seems to have turned a corner for my feet and I will continue to use these products moving forwards. Quite a simple foot-love strategy for after showers and swimming. [Calendula is also called marigold].
Propolis tincture and balm to treat athletes foot and protect the skin
There is a little more research online for propolis and when I saw a well-made tincture and ointment in the local Polish store (Wisla, Ballysimon Rd.)I purchased some to trial. There is discussion of the tincture and ointment being successful for the topical treatment of nail infection. Propolis is sticky so I would imagine that it applies and penetrates well into the nail. I must experiment a little more with this after I have given other strategies a proper evaluation. I would be happy to recommend propolis. Buy a good quality one. There seems to be some very good quality German and New Zealand propolis foot balms and tinctures available online worth considering.
Propolis Extract for Onychomycosis Topical Treatment: From Bench to Clinic
“Propolis, an adhesive resinous compound produced by honeybees (Apis mellifera), has shown multiple biological properties including significant antifungal and anti-biofilm activities in vitro. …… Our results indicated that PE is a promising natural compound for onychomycosis treatment, due to its ability to penetrate the nail without cytotoxicity, and its good antifungal performance against species such as Trichophyton spp. that are resistant to conventional antifungals, both in vitro and in patients.”
Whitfields ointment to treat athlete’s foot especially fungal nail infections
Another tip from my prehistoric pharmacy years is Whitfields ointment. I have seen good results with this for nail infections that are hard to treat. It is not that easy to find this ointment you may have to shop around/ online. I did not trial this approach as the online costs were silly. You may be able to find this more easily in the USA / UK it seems that it is less easily available here in Ireland now.
Hydrastis canadensis may help
Hydrastis canadensis is a herb worth a mention. I did come across a report of applying the tincture topically with evidence of antifungal effect in some in vitro studies, probably due to the berberine compounds, but I don’t feel that there is sufficient evidence to prompt use over the other strategies discussed here.
Out of curiosity I decided to add berberine to my herbal mix that contained immune support from herbs such as Echinacea along with other nutritious or lymphatic supporting herbs. They may have helped and certainly did not hinder, but would not be sufficient alone. Adding foods like garlic to the diet is also recommended.
Colloidal silver may help treat athlete’s foot
One final remedy worth a mention is Colloidal silver; I did not try it. There are some anecdotal stories knocking about online and I wasn’t happy with the quality of what I was reading regarding topical treatment. If you have tried colloidal silver with positive effect please leave a comment below to assist others. In theory it should work well; the problem with tinea especially on the mails is the ability of the treatment to penetrate the skin and nails.
Homeopathy to treat athlete’s foot and constitutional weakness
Last week after no reason at all my feet flared a little, no signs of infection just hot (this is why I suspect some emotional trickery also at play) So I read a little more around the topic of homeopathy and the treatment of athletes foot. My foot calmed down again; however if this sounds like you the next strategy I would consider should all else fail or things not make sense would be a trip to a homeopath for a custom remedy.
I believe in the power of homeopathy for treating the tricky challenging issues because I have come to see that there is a complex interplay going on between the physical and the emotional and many times homeopathy is the perfect remedy to solve both. Apis mel came up as suitable for me but as you will read, should you start to research this; there are many factors to consider when seeking a homeopathic remedy. Here is a brief intro https://homeopathyforathletes.com/athletes-foot/
Product images of recommended athlete’s foot treatments
Coaches corner tips
In this episode of the coaches corner we touch on ways to keep your shoes dry and reduce odour and also athletes foot. On the back of this episode my boyfriend actually made his own home-made dryer for his bike shoes and it works a dream (we made biltong in it previous to this!!). I am still drying mine in the hotpress as my shoes don’t get as damp and are never stinky 🙂
I hope this helps, keep your feet happy.
PS this is a helpful article to help you determine if you have an athlete’s foot infection or a foot allergy https://www.softstarshoes.com/live-bare-blog/2018/04/10/athletes-foot-vs-contact-dermatitis/