Having smelly feet can be an embarrassing and uncomfortable problem. But what actually causes foot odor? Is it a fungal infection like athlete’s foot, or is it caused by bacteria? The answer is that both fungi and bacteria can contribute to foot odor. Understanding the underlying causes can help you find the right treatments to keep your feet fresh.
What Causes Smelly Feet?
The main culprit behind smelly feet is excessive sweating, which creates an ideal environment for fungi and bacteria to thrive. Our feet contain more sweat glands per square inch than any other part of the body. When feet sweat heavily but are not able to air out, the sweat accumulates which leads to the breakdown of sweat by bacteria. This breakdown causes the unpleasant odors.
Fungi, such as Trichophyton rubrum, feed on keratin which is found in skin, hair, and nails. The byproducts of this digestion process also give feet an unpleasant smell. Fungal infections like athlete’s foot can cause scaling and itching in addition to odor.
Bacteria such as Bacillus and Micrococcus also feed on sweat, breaking it down into acids that produce foot odor. Bacteria multiply quickly in the warm, moist environment inside shoes and socks. The more bacteria present, the stronger the odor.
So in summary, both fungal activity and bacterial breakdown of sweat compounds create smelly feet. Fungi and bacteria work together, creating even more optimal conditions for foot odor.
Is it Fungus or Bacteria Causing the Smell?
Since fungi and bacteria coexist on the feet, it can be hard to determine if a fungal infection or excess bacteria is the main cause of odor. However, there are some clues that point to the difference:
Signs it’s a fungal infection:
- Flaking, peeling skin or itchy rash between the toes or on the soles of feet
- Nail fungus – thickened, distorted, discolored nails
- Odor that persists even after washing feet
Signs it’s bacterial overgrowth:
- No rash or skin/nail changes
- Odor decreases after washing feet with antibacterial soap
- Odor worsens as feet sweat more inside shoes all day
- No signs of fungal infection, but odor remains an issue
The best way to determine the underlying cause is to visit your doctor or podiatrist. They can examine your feet and conduct tests if needed to diagnose a fungal infection versus plain old smelly feet. Once the culprit is identified, proper treatment can begin.
Home Treatment for Foot Odor
No matter the cause, good foot hygiene is key to preventing and treating foot odor issues. Here are some tips for keeping your feet fresh at home:
- Wash feet daily with antibacterial soap, scrubbing between toes
- Dry feet thoroughly after washing, especially between toes
- Apply foot powder to help absorb sweat and moisture
- Use antifungal spray or powder if fungal infection is also present
- Wear clean, dry socks made of moisture-wicking fabrics
- Change socks at least once a day, or more often if very active
- Alternate pairs of shoes to allow them to fully dry between uses
- Treat shoes with antifungal spray to kill fungi and bacteria
- Apply foot deodorant or antiperspirant spray/wipes after washing feet
Medical Treatment Options
For persistent or severe cases of foot odor, see your doctor to discuss medical treatment options. Common prescription treatments include:
- Antifungal pills or creams to kill fungal infections
- Antibiotics if bacterial infection is present
- Oral medications to reduce excessive sweating of the feet
- Medicated shoe inserts to fight odor
- Laser treatments to eliminate sweat glands
With the right treatment plan for your specific causes of foot odor, you can get relief from smelly feet and feel confident being shoeless again! Pay attention to foot hygiene, wear breathable shoes and socks, and see a podiatrist if odor persists despite home care. You don’t have to live with smelly fungus feet forever.