By Howard J. Bennett

Now that the summer Olympics are behind us, it seemed like a good time to address some of the medical problems athletes have to deal with. In addition to sprains, pulled muscles and achy joints, an athlete’s skin takes a beating. Gymnasts get calluses, rowers get blisters and long jumpers get sand up their butts. But what about athlete’s foot? If you didn’t know any better, you’d think athlete’s foot referred to twisted toes or broken bones that come from throwing ones body around day after day. In reality, athlete’s foot is just a simple fungal infection of the skin. (Despite the name, most people who get athlete’s foot are not even athletes. All you need to get it are feet and sweat.) Athlete’s foot isn’t a serious condition, but it’s really annoying because it itches so much. Also, it doesn’t help that you have to walk (or run) on the body part that’s got the rash. At least if your elbow itched, you could try not to use it for a few days until it got better. Athlete’s foot usually shows up as a red, scaly rash between the toes. In some cases it may only affect a couple of toes. In others, the whole front of a person’s foot can be affected. The reason a fungal infection of the foot became known as “athlete’s foot” is because athletes spend so much time walking around locker rooms and showers in their bare feet. So if one person has a foot fungus, it’s easy for him to leave tiny, invisible (and contagious) fungus spores all over the place as he stomps around complaining that practice was too hard. One of the most interesting things about athlete’s foot is that it occurs mostly in teenagers and adults. The reason younger kids don’t get it that often is not because they are a cleaner lot. It’s just that the types of fungi (plural of fungus) that cause athlete’s foot are more attracted to the skin of people who have gone through puberty. Ick! Fungi are essential for life on Earth. Fungi and certain bacteria are known as “decomposers” because they feast on dead matter. When fungi break down dead plant and animal matter, they release nutrients into the soil that plants need to live. Fortunately, the fungi that cause athlete’s foot have no intention of turning you into plant food. In most cases, athlete’s foot is easily treated with creams your parents can buy at a drugstore or grocery store. But the best way to treat athlete’s foot is not to get it in the first place. That’s why your parents want you to wear flip-flops when you take showers in public facilities. It also helps it you don’t go outside barefoot.  

© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved. (First published in the Washington Post 9/17/12.)

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