It can be frustrating and embarrassing to deal with skin peeling between your toes, especially when there is an unpleasant odor present. Peeling skin with a smell is usually a sign that there is some kind of infection or inflammatory condition happening. Getting to the root cause and properly treating it is key to finding relief.
One of the most common culprits of smelly, peeling toe skin is athlete’s foot – a fungal infection also known as tinea pedis. This contagious condition thrives in warm, moist environments like swimming pools and locker rooms. The fungus causes scaling, cracks, redness, and itching between the toes. As the dead skin accumulates, there is more food for the fungus to feed on, intensifying symptoms. Bacteria then set in to feed on the fungus and dead tissues, resulting in a foul odor emanating from between the toes.
Another possibility is pitted keratolysis. This bacterial infection eats away at the superficial layer of the skin, leading to crater-like pits and white patches typically on the soles of the feet and between the toes. As the skin breaks down, an unpleasant odor arises from the affected areas. The smell has been likened to rotten meat or stinky socks. Moisture gets trapped between the toes, allowing the bacteria to proliferate. Tight shoes, hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), and constantly wet feet from activities like sports further raise risk for pitted keratolysis.
A less common culprit, interdigital tinea is a fungal skin infection that targets the toe webs. Also referred to as toe web mycoses, this condition is characterized by itchy, red, macerated skin between the fourth and fifth toes. As the infection progresses, peeling and raw skin will emerge, producing a distinct odor. Without proper treatment, the infection worsens and can spread to the nails and bottom of the feet too.
No matter the specific type of infection behind peeling, smelly toe skin, prompt diagnosis and treatment is vital. Leaving the problem unchecked allows it to intensify and spread. Plus, the odor and unsightly appearance causes major self-consciousness and discomfort. Topical antifungal creams containing ingredients like miconazole, clotrimazole and terbinafine are usually prescribed. Maintaining strict foot hygiene is also key – keeping the feet clean and dry, wearing breathable socks and shoes, and applying antifungal foot powder can help prevent recurrence.
For some people, smelly, peeling toe skin stems from excessive sweating of the feet, known as hyperhidrosis. The constant dampness alters skin texture and pH, allowing bacteria and fungi to move in. In these cases, addressing the sweating itself is important. Over-the-counter antiperspirants, iontophoresis treatments, or prescription strength topicals may be used to curb excessive foot perspiration. Lifestyle measures like wearing moisture-wicking socks, frequently changing socks, using medicated powder and wearing well-ventilated shoes are also recommended.
In diabetic patients, skin peeling between the toes with a funky odor can signal a bacterial or fungal infection arising from high blood sugar. Neuropathy – nerve damage occurring in some diabetics – also predisposes them to infections. With neuropathy, numbness in the feet allows small wounds or irritation caused by friction in shoes to go unnoticed. These openings then allow microbes to take hold. Getting blood sugar under control and implementing vigilant foot care habits are paramount for diabetics battling smelly, peeling toe infections.
Certain inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can also manifest between the toes causing redness, scaling, fissures and itching. The skin breakdown allows odor-producing bacteria to flourish. Therefore, managing the inflammatory condition itself through topical steroids, biologics and phototherapy helps minimize troubling toe symptoms.
In rare cases, peeling skin lesions between the toes that smell bad may be a sign of a bacterial infection called cellulitis. This condition causes swollen, red skin that feels hot to the touch and spreads rapidly. Cellulitis requires prompt oral antibiotic treatment to avoid dangerous complications like tissue damage or sepsis. Seeking urgent medical care is advised if a toe infection is accompanied by fever, dizziness, confusion or other troubling symptoms.
Dealing with annoying skin complaints like peeling and smelly toes is never fun. But getting the right diagnosis and sticking to the treatment plan can help clear things up for good. Paying close attention to foot hygiene and protective footwear habits are also paramount in keeping the toes – and the rest of the foot – infection-free and odor-free going forward. With some diligence and positive lifestyle adjustments, smelly, peeling toe skin can become a thing of the past.