If you’ve ever battled athlete’s foot, you know the agony goes far beyond just dealing with cracked, flaky, itchy skin between your toes. Perhaps the worst part is the bothersome odor that seems to follow you everywhere, no matter how much you wash your feet.
Even after applying creams and powders to treat the infection, you may feel self-conscious about taking your shoes off in front of others or worry that people can smell your feet from a distance. The stench can feel downright relentless.
What causes this smell and will it ever fully go away? Here’s what you need to know about coping with and preventing smelly athlete’s foot.
Where Does the Smell Come From?
The fungus that causes athlete’s foot infections feeds on keratin, a protein found in hair, skin and nails. One byproduct of this feeding process is isovaleric acid, which is responsible for the cheese-like smell associated with athlete’s foot.
Other pungent compounds are also released as the fungi grow and spread in the damp environment between your toes. So those noxious odors emanating from your feet result directly from a thriving fungal colony at work.
Even after using an antifungal cream or powder, stray fungi may remain, allowing the smells to linger long after other symptoms improve. And secondary bacteria can also take hold and produce their own unpleasant smells.
Will It Ever Go Away Completely?
With aggressive, consistent treatment, the smells and infection can be fully banished—but it takes diligence and patience for the stench to dissipate permanently.
Using an over-the-counter antifungal cream for the full course of treatment according to package directions (usually 2-4 weeks) is crucial. Make sure to apply the medication in a thin layer across and in between toes, including on the soles of your feet as it may have spread.
Wash socks in hot water and bleach if possible to kill any lingering fungi. Consider tossing out shoes worn while actively infected—fungi can live on for months in warm, damp shoes and easily reinfect feet.
Be sure to keep feet clean and dry, but avoid harsh soaps which can further irritate the skin. Apply antifungal powder inside shoes daily to help curb moisture and discourage regrowth of fungi.
Continue using these preventative measures for several weeks after initial symptoms resolve to ensure any hidden fungi have also been annihilated. Don’t stop treatment prematurely or fungi may not be fully eliminated.
Coping Tips for Managing Odor
While battling back that fungal infection, a few strategies can help minimize odor and self-consciousness:
- Rotate pairs of shoes daily so each has a chance to fully air out and dry. Consider removable insoles to make washing easier.
- Apply antifungal deodorant spray or body powder to clean feet and shoes to help mask smells. Menthol, eucalyptus or tea tree oil fragrances tend to be strongest.
- Place charcoal inserts or bags inside shoes when not being worn to help absorb odors. Baking soda also absorbs smells—just sprinkle it directly on the insole.
- Wear clean socks daily, opting for moisture wicking fabrics like wool blends that discourage fungal growth. Change socks mid-day if they become sweaty.
- Tell friends or housemates discretely about the issue to avoid embarrassment if odors linger. Most people are understanding and won’t judge.
Stay Vigilant Against Reinfection
Even once the stench dissipates after a successful battle against athlete’s foot, the fungi remain ready and waiting for the ideal conditions to flourish again. Follow these precautions to avoid rounds of repeat infections:
Keep your feet clean and dry them thoroughly after bathing or swimming. Use your own towels and avoid sharing them with others. Wear shower sandals or flip flops when using communal showers or locker rooms.
Diligently apply antifungal powder inside shoes and socks regularly to prevent fungal growth. Consider using UV shoe sanitizers periodically to kill bacteria and fungi.
Stick to breathable natural fabrics for socks and alternate pairs of shoes daily. Make sure shoes aren’t too snug and have a chance to fully air out between wears.
If symptoms reappear, reapply antifungal medication immediately rather than ignoring early red flags. Nip it in the bud before fungi proliferate and that dreaded smell returns!
While annoying and embarrassing, athlete’s foot odor will dissipate eventually with consistent antifungal treatment and vigilant prevention. But don’t resign yourself to just coping with the stench indefinitely—with some diligent foot care, you can kick that smelly fungus for good.