Have you checked out your toes lately? Look closely at the area between the toes to see whether there is red or peeling skin. If there is, you might have athlete’s foot, and you may find that the area is itchy or ouchy. What can you do to cure your athlete’s foot?
What Is Athlete’s Foot?
Athlete’s foot is caused by a fungal infection of the skin on the feet. The redness, itching, peeling and burning can be very uncomfortable. Doctors have a name for this problem; they call athlete’s foot tinea pedis. Tinea is loosely translated as ringworm, a fungal infection. Pedis is Latin for foot.
According to the National Library of Medicine, as many as 15% of Americans are affected. That means there truly is a fungus among us. The usual culprits are known as Trichophyton rubrum, Trichophyton interdigitale or Epidermophyton floccosum.
How do such fungi spread? You can pick up athlete’s foot from shared locker rooms at swimming pools or work places. People who aren’t aware that they are infected may inadvertently spread the organisms to other parts of their bodies where they can cause jock itch, under-breast rash or other problems.
These fungi love warm, moist, dark spaces. Consequently, if you wear shoes in the summertime, you are providing them with exactly what they want. Some people are extremely susceptible to this infection, while others are resistant. Individuals who have sweaty feet and a genetic predisposition may be especially vulnerable. In addition, those with elevated blood sugar due to diabetes or pre-diabetes may also be easy prey to these organisms.
Can You Cure Your Athlete’s Foot with Over-the-Counter Medicines?
Numerous over-the-counter medications can help discourage athlete’s foot fungi. You will find them as creams, powders and gels. Antifungal ingredients such as clotrimazole (Desenex Cream, Lotrimin AF, Mycelex Cream), luliconazole (Lulicon Cream, Luzu), ketoconazole (Nizoral shampoo), miconazole (Cruex Topical Spray Powder, Lotrimin AF Powder, Micatin, Monistat), terbinafine (Desenex Max Topical Cream, Lamisil AT) or tolnaftate (Aftate, Desenex Spray, Dr. Scholl’s Athlete’s Foot, Tinactin, Zeasorb-AF Powder) can often clear up mild infections. Sadly, we have not seen any head-to-head comparisons that would allow us to say a spray is better than a powder or a cream is superior to a solution. Ditto for one antifungal chemical vs. another.
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Occasionally, people have a co-infection with bacteria that won’t respond to antifungal treatment alone. Moreover, repeated use of the same antifungal medicine could trigger resistance by the fungus. In particular, T. rubrum, a common cause of athlete’s foot, is becoming resistant to terbinafine (Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, June 27, 2017). As a result, antifungal treatment to cure your athlete’s foot is not a matter of once-and-done. It requires persistence, or else a slightly tamed fungal infection can roar back with a vengeance. The same is true for home remedies. Persistent application is key.
Home Remedies for Athlete’s Foot:
Vinegar and Water Soaks:
One reader reported success with a simple remedy applied conscientiously. Her teenage son had suffered athlete’s foot for years, despite treatment with prescription antifungal cream and over-the-counter powders. Finally his mother tried having him soak his feet daily in a solution of one-third white vinegar and two-thirds warm water. After a week, the athlete’s foot was greatly improved. She also soaked his socks in a vinegar solution before washing them.
Dermatologists have even published a recommendation to wear vinegar-soaked socks for 10 to 15 minutes a night to treat athlete’s foot and toenail fungus (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, online, Sept. 22, 2017). We haven’t seen any reports of fungi developing resistance to vinegar, at least not yet. People often inquire whether apple cider vinegar or whit vinegar is better. Because there have been so few studies of this home remedy, the two versions of vinegar have not been compared. We suspect they are about equally effective.
Gail had success for her daughter with vinegar:
“I haven’t had athlete’s foot since I was a child, but I wonder if your readers have had any success with soaking in a vinegar solution.
“When our daughter had trouble with some kind of foot infections that didn’t respond to the the pediatrician’s prescribed medications, he sent her to a dermatologist. The dermatologist recommended soaking in a vinegar solution, which cleared it up. (She also recommended changing socks in the middle of the day to keep the feet dry.)”
Pam in Modesto, California, has a vinegar variant:
“The only thing that gets rid of athlete’s foot in our household is by making a spray or foot soak out of equal parts of organic apple cider vinegar and filtered water. We add about 1 teaspoon of sea salt to 8 oz. of spray – shake it or mix it up and instant relief!
“After drying the feet with a blow dryer, we apply Melaleuca or Tea Tree oil (antifungal). Repeat at least in the morning and at night before bed – several times a day, too, if possible.”
Listerine is another popular treatment for athlete’s foot. We have heard from numerous people that they have had success soaking their feet in amber Listerine. This popular mouthwash contains thymol, which has antifungal activity.
Elaine in Marshall, North Carolina, likes amber Listerine:
“Try the amber Listerine. I sponge it on twice a day to start, then get down to a maintenance dose of once a day.”
L. in Georgia also like Listerine:
“Amber Listerine works best for me too. Just put onto a cotton ball and dab between toes.”
One reader offered this report:
Q. I listened to a radio program in which you mentioned thymol as a very effective fungicide. I noticed that thymol was the active agent in Seventh Generation Disinfecting Wipes.
Since I was having early symptoms of athlete’s foot, I used one of the wipes on my feet after showering. Within four days all my symptoms were gone. This is the best cure I’ve found. It’s low cost and it smells good too!
This natural compound is an important ingredient in both old-fashioned amber Listerine mouthwash and Vicks VapoRub. That may explain why many people find those products helpful against fungal infections.
Thymol is found in many herbs such as basil and oregano as well as thyme (Food Chemistry, Nov. 1, 2016). In addition to fighting off fungi and bacteria, thyme has been used to treat coughs, colds and other common ailments. Trying it out to cure your athlete’s foot makes sense.
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Another reader had problems with recurrent athlete’s foot, even after using several OTC creams.
She discovered a different approach:
“I finally started using alcohol hand sanitizer instead of soap to clean my feet and have not had an issue since then.”
One person uses straight rubbing alcohol:
“Over the years I have had athlete’s foot occasionally. I’ve never used anything except rubbing alcohol. Usually, once a day in the evening before bed. I slosh a small amount over my toes and rub it between each toe. It burns at first, but not bad, and the athletes foot is gone within a week.”
J.W.H. says Head and Shoulders Shampoo was able to cure athlete’s foot:
“Since the 1960’s, I have cured/prevented athlete’s foot by washing my feet in the shower with Head and Shoulders hair shampoo. If you use Head and Shoulders on feet that already have athlete’s foot, it will burn a little for the first 2 days. It will be gone in less than a week. To prevent it, wash your feet with it once or twice a week.”
One simple remedy is universally available for free, though it probably isn’t approved by dermatologists.
A woman wrote:
“My Dad was in the Navy during WW II, stationed in the South Pacific. He had horrendous athlete’s foot, cracked and bleeding, and was being treated by the doctors.
“He was told by an old salt to pee on his feet, yet Dad persisted with the doctors for another month or so, with no improvement. So he started peeing on his feet and it was very effective, clearing the infection up in short order. Dad is now 94 and he still tells that story. It worked for him and it works for me, too.”
Paul uses a similar approach:
“This may sound gross, but I used to have chronic athlete’s foot because my feet sweat. I had tried various medications with only temporary relief It was a line from a movie – but I started urinating on my feet in the shower (first thing, so all the subsequent water washes the shower stall) and I have not had a single episode since. I also was having a yellowing toenail that was breaking off – also cured. Once or twice a week seems to be enough. And it’s free.”
Jim in Raleigh, NC, was able to cure athlete’s foot with Vicks VapoRub:
“I rub a little Vicks VapoRub between my toes while I’m trying to control my toenail fungus and my athlete’s foot has been cured for several years. I wish I could say the same for the toenail fungus…”
W.P. used coconut oil:
“I had a bout of athlete’s foot a few months ago. I rubbed coconut oil (which is anti-microbial) over my toes a couple times a day and then put on socks. The problem ended and no recurrence.”
Sesame Seed Oil:
Carol found a helpful idea in a book:
“Years ago, I read about a cure for athlete’s foot in a book by Dr. Deepak Chopra, M.D. He wrote that one should apply or pour (organic) SESAME SEED OIL on the athlete’s foot fungus, because the oil would prevent oxygen from getting to the fungus, and the athlete’s foot fungus would die of oxygen starvation. I tried pouring some organic sesame seed oil on my athlete’s foot I had at the time, and IT WORKED! No pain, and like magic, within a day or so, the athlete’s foot was gone!”
Whatever strategy you choose to cure your athlete’s foot, it will require patience. Keeping your feet clean, dry and exposed to air can be helpful as well. Perhaps sandals will be a good choice for summer footwear. People with toenail fungus are often reluctant to wear sandals for fear of showing their unsightly nails. Antifungal foot soaks you might use to cure your athlete’s foot may also be helpful for nail fungus.
Amber Listerine and White Vinegar for Nail Fungus:
A number of readers have combined vinegar with another favorite remedy, old-fashioned amber-colored Listerine mouthwash used as a foot soak.
Q. Ten years ago, I had toenail fungus. I soaked my feet in a Listerine and vinegar 50/50 solution for an hour every day for a week. That sounds like a lot of time, but I was stubborn and really wanted to get rid of it. I live in Hawaii where everyone wears flip flops.
This really worked for me. I’m hoping to use the same solution now to get rid of my athlete’s foot. My doctor was amazed, especially since he wanted to give me a pricey prescription I would have had to take for a long time.
Mary has tried this remedy as well. She notes the importance of persistence:
“Some years ago I did the vinegar and amber Listerine soaks -recommended here-everynday for about 20 minutes. Definitely a commitment and annoying, yet after about 4-6 months the bad nails grew out and new fresh nails appeared. After so many years with ugly nails, I was thrilled.
“However, what I thought was fixed was not. A reader at the time wrote that the soak needs to be continued for a time after new nail comes in. I did not do this, so all the time I put into soaking was lost. The nail fungus returned.
“Frustrated, I went for a laser treatment. Not only was it expensive, but she did all the toes and what resulted was the spread to 5 more toes! Do not waste your money.
“Right now I am using Vicks or spraying with Hydrogen Peroxide occasionally just to keep it at bay and be able to wear sandals. One day I will commit to the vinegar/Listerine soaks again. That worked! Just remember to keep it up for a time after you think the problem solved. That reader taught me an important lesson.”
How Do You Cure Your Athlete’s Foot?
Share your secret in the comment section below. If there is a medication that works best for you, we would love to learn about it. If a home remedy can cure your athlete’s foot, please let others know about your recipe.
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. Read Terry's Full Bio.
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Yamada T et al, "Terbinafine resistance of Trichophyton clinical isolates caused by specific point mutations in the squalene epoxidase gene." Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, June 27, 2017. DOI: 10.1128/AAC.00115-17
Kelly S et al, "Vinegar sock soak for tinea pedis or onychomycosis." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Sep. 22, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaad.2017.09.043
Elshafie HS et al, "Antimicrobial activity and chemical composition of three essential oils extracted from Mediterranean aromatic plants." Journal of Medicinal Food, Nov. 2016. DOI: 10.1089/jmf.2016.0066
Mandras N et al, "Liquid and vapour-phase antifungal activities of essential oils against Candida albicans and non-albicans Candida." BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Aug. 30, 2016. DOI: 10.1186/s12906-016-1316-5
Marchese A et al, "Antibacterial and antifungal activities of thymol: A brief review of the literature." Food Chemistry, Nov. 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.04.111
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