Athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis, is a common fungal infection of the feet caused by dermatophytes such as Trichophyton rubrum and Epidermophyton floccosum. It can cause itching, burning, scaling, inflammation and blisters on the feet, especially between the toes. One of the most well-known symptoms of athlete’s foot is its distinctive unpleasant odor. But does athlete’s foot always cause smelly feet? Here’s a closer look at the characteristic funky aroma associated with this condition.
What Causes the Smell?
The foul smell associated with athlete’s foot is caused by the metabolic byproducts and waste products of the fungus itself. Dermatophytes thrive in the warm, moist environment between the toes and feed on keratin, a protein found in skin, nails and hair. As the fungi metabolize and break down keratin, they release sulfur compounds such as isovaleric acid and methanethiol. These chemicals produce a distinct cheesy or vinegary odor similar to Limburger cheese.
In addition, the dampness between the toes from sweating allows bacteria to multiply rapidly. Bacteria species such as Bacillus subtilis and Staphylococcus epidermidis release their own pungent metabolic byproducts that add to the noxious foot odor. This creates a complex cocktail of smelly sulfur compounds, acids and amines that give athlete’s foot its characteristic stench.
Does It Always Smell?
While foul foot odor is a hallmark of athlete’s foot, the condition does not necessarily always cause smelly feet. Here are some factors that influence whether athlete’s foot will produce an odor:
- Severity of infection – Mild cases with minimal skin inflammation may not have much odor. But moderate to severe infections with extensive blistering and peeling can produce a stronger, more noticeable smell.
- Location – Infections confined just to the soles of the feet are less likely to cause odor than those between the toes where fungus and bacteria thrive.
- Treatment – Prompt treatment with topical antifungal creams can help resolve symptoms like odor before they become too pronounced. Untreated infections are more likely to progress in severity and smell.
- Foot hygiene – Good foot hygiene with frequent washing, thorough drying between toes, absorbent socks and rotation of shoes can help minimize foot odor. Poor hygiene promotes microbial overgrowth.
- Individual variation – The skin microbiome naturally varies between individuals, influencing odor production. The smell may also depend on an individual’s reaction to fungal metabolites.
- Shoes and environment – Tight, non-breathing shoes and socks or hot, humid environments tend to make athlete’s foot smell worse. Open, breathable shoes reduce odor.
So while athlete’s foot has a signature stench, it does not necessarily cause obvious foot odor in every case. Mild or well-managed infections may produce minimal smell. But severe, untreated or long-standing cases tend to produce a more readily apparent cheesy, vinegary funk that can cause social embarrassment. The smell provides a diagnostic clue to seek treatment for fungal infection.
Coping with the Odor
If athlete’s foot is producing an unpleasant foot odor, here are some tips to help reduce the smell:
- Seek prescription antifungal treatment to resolve the infection.
- Wash feet daily with antibacterial soap and dry thoroughly between toes.
- Apply foot powder to help absorb moisture and reduce bacterial overgrowth.
- Wear clean, absorbent socks made of natural materials like cotton. Avoid socks with synthetic fibers that can trap sweat.
- Choose well-ventilated footwear and alternate pairs of shoes day-to-day to allow thorough drying.
- Disinfect shoes periodically with antifungal sprays or ultraviolet shoe sanitizers to kill fungi and bacteria.
- Soak feet in vinegar, Listerine or dilute tea tree oil solutions to help control odor-causing microbes.
- Apply over-the-counter topical creams containing chlorophyll, tea tree oil or eucalyptus to feet to help mask odors.
- Consider prescription oral antifungal medications for stubborn, severe or recurrent infections.
The smelly feet caused by athlete’s foot can be frustrating and embarrassing. But a combination of antimicrobial treatment, good foot hygiene and moisture-wicking shoes can help eliminate the odor and get feet fresh again. With proper care, athlete’s foot doesn’t have to cramp your style.