Athlete’s foot is the common name for fungal infections of the skin of the foot. The medical term is tinea pedis.
While the association between athlete’s foot and public showers seems obvious today, doctors did not begin to suspect a connection until the 1940s.
Around that time, a group of researchers — including Dr. Archibald Cochrane, who is widely regarded as the father of evidence-based medicine — became aware of an unusually high incidence of fungal foot infections in English coal miners. The mines had just installed showers as a sanitary measure for the soot-covered miners.
In 1954, U.S. investigators proved the association by culturing fungi from the floor of a shower in a penitentiary in Atlanta. The finding has since been corroborated in diverse settings such as Thai naval cadets, Algerian military personnel and Tunisians who practice ritual foot washing.
Because the fungi that cause fungal foot infections thrive in warm damp environments, public showers, locker rooms and swimming pools are breeding grounds. Similarly, shoes that become warm and damp also promote their growth. Athlete’s foot also tends to be more common in men than in women, perhaps because the floors of men’s locker rooms tend to be more heavily contaminated with fungi.
Once a fungal infection becomes established, antifungal medication will probably be necessary. But there are a number of simple steps that one can take to prevent infection. Keep shoes aired out by changing them every couple of days. Wash your feet with soap and wipe them dry with a towel. Avoid socks made of material that doesn’t dry easily, such as nylon. Also, drying socks in the sun seems to have a fungicidal effect.
The most authoritative advice for avoiding fungal infections comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends regularly trimming the toenails, which can serve as a reservoir for the fungi that cause athlete’s foot, and wearing sandals in locker rooms and public showers. The American Podiatric Medical Association likewise advises people to “use shower shoes in public showers.”
It is important to clean flip-flops or bath sandals after each use. Fortunately, this is easy. Wiping with a wet towel or pouring water on your footwear is sufficient to remove enough residual fungi to prevent reinfection.
The New York Times