Do your toes itch all the time? Are you troubled by other upsetting symptoms, such as skin cracks, bleeding or even blistering? If you have given an affirmative answer to either of these two questions, you might be suffering from a fungal infection, more commonly known as athlete’s foot.
In this article, we will talk about itchy toes, factors that favor the appearance of such fungal infections and present both treatment and prevention solutions for healthy feet. Keep in mind that fungal infections are contagious, being transmitted not only through infected objects but also from one person to the other.
Itchy toes, part of the clinical picture of athlete’s foot
A number of symptoms can appear in the situation one suffers from such a fungal infection, with itchy toes standing at the top of the list. Many people make this symptom worse by scratching, thus extending the infection to the rest of the foot or to the toenails. In time, the skin around or in between the toes can crack, which provides the fungus with an entry point and increases the risk for reoccurrence.
As you will have the opportunity to read below, there are a number of factors that can favor the appearance of such infections, such as a moisture-rich environment or small cracks/cuts in the skin.
Patients who suffer from athlete’s foot declare that a stinging or burning sensation often accompanies the itchiness. The more the fungal infection progresses, the more discomforting and even painful the symptomatology can become. In fact, the infection can become so severe, that wearing shoes becomes impossible (thus, the patient is prevented from performing activities of daily living). The skin around the toes can become dry, scaly and red, peeling and appearing as if one spent too much time in water (excess moisture).
It is possible that the fungus spreads from the toes to the toenails, especially if there is a lot of scratching. It is important to understand that the immune system plays a role in the picture, a weakened immune system increasing the risk for resilient fungal infections. Once the fungal infection has spread to the toenails, these can change both their color and texture, becoming yellow, green or black.
They can lift, curl or even separate from the nail bed, causing even more intense itchiness and bleeding. As the structure of the toenail is affected by the infection, cracking or splitting can occur. Left untreated, the infected toenail will eventually die.
How contagious are my itchy toes?
This is indeed a very good question. In the situation that you have a fungal infection, your itchy toes are quite contagious. As you might have guessed, this infection can be spread from one person to the other but also through contaminated surfaces, objects etc.
In order to keep the risk of contagiousness down to a minimum, you should never walk barefoot when visiting the gym, a locker room or a swimming pool. The risk of contamination is high in nail salons, so you might want to inquire about hygiene practices before getting a pedicure. It is also a good idea to avoid sharing objects of personal hygiene, clothing or socks with other people, as these might be contaminated with one or several fungi. Add to that the proper environment, with warmth and moisture, and you have the perfect condition for itchy toes and fungal infections in general.
Initial treatment measures
If you have noticed that your toes have become itchy, with other of the above-mentioned symptoms being present as well, it is time to consider antifungal treatment. In the initial stage, you can go for OTC medication, choosing antifungal lotions, creams or sprays. During the treatment period, it is highly important to ensure that your feet stay both dry and cool. The early intervention will guarantee that the fungal infection does not spread to the rest of the feet or to the toenails.
Once a fungal infection has occurred, you can greatly improve the experienced symptoms by eliminating favoring factors. Your toes will become even more itchy, as long as the fungus has a warm and moisture-rich environment in which to thrive and develop. You need to keep your feet dry and cool, avoiding conditions that might make them otherwise.
First and foremost, you can use special foot sprays, as these can reduce excess moisture and smell good at the same time. You should also wear socks that are made from fabrics that can absorb excess moisture. In regard to footwear, make sure that your shoes are breathable and not too tight (a narrow toe box favors itchy toes and fungal infections in general).
Throw away shoes that are either worn out or do not fit you well, for the same reasons. Use baby powder in order to keep your feet dry; make sure to apply this before putting on your socks and only in a moderate quantity, otherwise it will not have the desired effect. Also, in the situation that your feet sweat quite a lot, you can reapply it during the day.
Treatment according to infection’s seriousness
Depending on how intense the itchiness actually is and what other symptoms you might present, the doctor can begin the treatment with antifungal topical solutions. Topical creams are easy to administer; they present little or few side-effects but they take a long time to act. In the situation that the fungal infection has extended to the toenails, the doctor might also recommend medicated nail polish (long-term treatment).
With more severe fungal infections, oral antifungal drugs are recommended. These have to be taken for a long period of time as well and, unfortunately, they may lead to a wide range of side-effects (diarrhea, nausea, dizziness etc.). Sometimes, the topical creams can be administered at the same time with oral medication.
Corticosteroid creams can be administered in order to improve the symptoms experienced, especially the itchiness. However, these only work on the symptoms and do not eliminate the root problem, meaning the fungal infection. For infected toenails, other treatment solutions include laser therapy and surgical removal (partial or total). Medicated powders might help one keep his/her feet dry and cool, while natural remedies, such as vinegar soaks or tea tree oil applications are considered to be highly efficient in eliminating the fungal infection altogether.
It is true that itchy toes can be prevented, by taking a few simple measures. As it was already mentioned, you can prevent athlete’s foot and other fungal infections by paying attention to your footwear. You should also change your shoes on a daily basis, socks as well. Always go for breathable shoes, especially during the summer, so that the air circulates around the feet. If possible, wear athletic shoes, as these are the most comfortable to wear and they help you keep your feet dry and cool.
What do researchers have to say on the subject?
According to a study published on the US National Library of Medicine, the fungal infection known as athlete’s foot is present in 15-25% of the general population. The study confirms the contagiousness of the infection, drawing attention to the fact that the infection can spread not only to other parts of the body but also to other people. As for the risk factors involved in the appearance of such conditions, unsanitary swimming pool conditions and occupational hazards are presented at the top of the list.
Itchy toes are presented as part of the clinical picture of athlete’s foot, in a patient information leaflet developed by the BMJ Group. The authors draw attention to the fact that the fungus prefers the space between the toes, as it has the perfect conditions to thrive. Warmth, moisture and the presence of keratin, the protein of the skin, are presented as favoring factors for the development of fungal infections. Fungi feed on keratin, which ensures the progression of the infection and the resilience to various forms of treatment.
In this leaflet, we are also presented with other risk factors, many of which are known to the general population. For example, those who have sweaty feet or those who use shared changing areas are more likely to suffer from itchy toes and fungal infections. The same goes for those who use public showers, shared baths or have small cuts on their feet (entry point for the fungus into the skin). It is also highlighted that adults are more often diagnosed with such problems than children. Gender (women), diabetes, HIV, AIDS and chemotherapy treatments can predispose to such infections as well.
In another study presented online on Cochrane Library, it is highlighted that fungal infections can co-exist with bacterial infections. The authors of the study draw attention to the fact that proper testing should be made, in order to confirm the presence of bacteria or fungus (or both). In the situation that one suffers from a bacterial infection as well, antibiotic treatment is going to be necessary.
Itchy toes are often a symptom of fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot. Such conditions can be easily prevented by avoiding contact with infected people, not sharing hygiene objects or walking barefoot in public areas. If the infection has occurred, the treatment can be topical, oral or a combination of both. The treatment is generally long-term and all areas of infection have to be addressed, in order to keep the risk of re-infection down to a minimum.
 Athlete’s foot. US National Library of Medicine, 2009, 1712. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907807/
 Athlete’s foot. Patient information from the BMJ Group. 2014. Retrieved from: http://besthealth-bmj.com/pdf/392838.pdf
 Topical treatments for athlete’s foot. Cochrane Library, 2013. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD010863/full