How Contagious Is Athlete’s Foot? Your Bad Habits, Not Others, May Be to Blame

New York University scientist Dr. Rudolf L. Baer wants you to know that you may have the fungus that causes athlete’s foot on your feet at this very moment. He’d like to dispel the myth that athlete’s foot is easily contagious from person to person, with the itchy, burning condition arising the moment someone comes into contact with a contaminated foot bath, shower room floor, yoga mat, or bed sheet. He wants the population to take another look at how the foot fungus really spreads and what we should really be doing to prevent it.

bare feet may contract athlete's foot

Are your bad habits setting you at risk for contracting athlete’s foot fungus?
Image Source: Flickr user Nicholas A. Tonelli

Is Athlete’s Foot Contagious?

We like to think that a foreign invader is responsible for something like athlete’s foot and that we can simply avoid it. But the truth is, athlete’s foot is often our own undoing. The American College of Foot & Ankle Orthopaedics explains, “Athlete’s foot is not as contagious as it’s made out to be, and in many cases, an infected family member can use showers, bathrooms, and more, and never infect others living in the same household. In fact, many instances of athlete’s foot have nothing to do with showers, restrooms, pools or the like.”

Instead, athlete’s foot is often spread by:

– Failing to wash and dry feet thoroughly after athletic activity, standing for long periods in wet shoes, or walking in water

– Wearing athletic shoes, shearling boots, or other footwear that have become too sweaty and worn (which becomes the ideal breeding ground for fungi)

– Not rotating shoes between wearings, so inadvertently wearing wet shoes that can develop mold

– Sharing shoes and socks with others

– Changing shoes, but not socks

– Using the same shoes for athletic and casual purposes

– Wearing socks and shoes made of synthetic fibers or other materials that don’t breathe

Trying on shoes at the store, without socks or stockings

Have you noticed a trend? In a nutshell, moisture is our worst enemy when it comes to athlete’s foot fungus infections. Even if your shoes don’t feel wet to the touch, they likely are — especially if you have worn them all day at work or for a jog. Furthermore, flare-ups of athlete’s foot are also believed to occur when the body’s immune system is lowered for whatever reason, so it’s important that you focus on leading a healthy lifestyle in general.

The Research

To prove his hypothesis, Dr. Baer’s team tested over 100 doctors, nurses, and lab technicians who did not have a history of athlete’s foot. For 30 minutes a week, the subjects bathed a foot in a pan of water containing 100,000 times the amount of athlete’s foot fungus than they could possibly pick up from a locker room. After six weeks, researchers found:

– Half of the feet harbored athlete’s foot fungus on the surface.

– Not a single infection was recorded out of 100 feet subjected to the fungus.

Why Our Attempts at Preventing Athlete’s Foot May Be Misguided

Dr. Baer says that most of the commonly prescribed preventative measures are not only ineffective, but harmful. For instance, he noted that many people try to “sterilize” shoes and socks using harsh chemicals and sprays. These chemicals may “irritate the skin to such an extent that dormant fungi can stage a full-scale invasion,” Dr. Baer noted. He added, “It is naive to expect that wading for a few seconds through a basin of antiseptic solution will help ward off the disease. These stagnant, unhygienic puddles should be abandoned.”

Some tips for preventing athlete’s foot include:

– Wear breathable shoes and socks

– Regularly use a dry, mild foot powder that contains fatty acid (like aloe or olive oil)

– Put lamb’s wool between the toes if you often feel wetness there

– Always dry the feet before putting on socks

– Change socks when changing shoes

– Use non-alkaline soap-less detergent (Dove Beauty Bar, Zest Deodorant Bar, Neutrogena Body Wash) to wash your feet.

A better method to dry out the shoes and limit the spread of microbes would be to use the podiatrist-recommended SteriShoe UV shoe sanitizer. Our device uses natural ultraviolet rays to kill dangerous pathogens (like the sort that cause athlete’s foot and toenail fungus!) and dry out excess sweat from shoes within 45 minutes. You can test one out here.