Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Stinky Feet

Dear Dr Peg,

My girlfriend told me I have stinky feet. She thinks it might be a fungus thing and wants me to get it taken care of. I don’t notice it, but she said that her socks even stunk when she washed them with mine. I mostly wear the same pair of shoes, which my brother handed down to me, but I shower every day and put on fresh socks. I’m a clean person. Please help me. She’s sleeping on the couch.

Dear Fragrant Feet,

Your girlfriend is probably right (aren’t they always?). You likely have a fungal infection of the feet, also known as tinea (fungal infection) pedis (of the foot). This is also called athlete’s foot, but you don’t have to be an athlete to score this deal.

We all sweat, and sweat has odor. Foot sweat by itself can have a strong odor, but if your girlfriend’s socks pick up this odor in the washer, it is more likely to be caused by fungus. You said you don’t notice the odor, and she does. This is common. We adjust quickly to our own body odors and often don’t notice them, whereas others might.

There are “fungus among-us” everywhere. We don’t have as many in our dry climate as someone who lives in say, Florida, but we have plenty. Fungi (the plural form) live on and off people, and on gym mats, shower stalls, rotting logs and old food.

A fungus is a life form. It is closer to a plant than an animal, but rates its very own kingdom in the 5-kingdom taxonomy of life forms. Within the kingdom Fungi there are over 100,000 species. A few of these have a special affinity for human skin. They cause ringworm (not a worm at all), jock itch, diaper rash and athlete’s foot, among others.

The ideal habitat for certain fungi is somewhere dark, warm and wet. Shoes fit the bill perfectly. You might have even inherited your tinea along with your brother’s shoes. That’s one reason that, although I’m a big believer in recycled clothing, I don’t recommend buying used shoes (or underwear or hats for that matter). Your brother might have had his own case of resident fungus, which went on living quietly in the cracks of his shoes until your feet came along and spiced up the place, allowing the fungi to multiply and prosper. And reek.

So what to do? Basically, the approach to tinea pedis is two-pronged. First, slaughter the beasts. Second, clean up the neighborhood so their skuzzy relatives don’t move in.

Killing fungus is a fairly straightforward proposition. There are a variety of anti-fungal products available over the counter at any pharmacy. I believe the creams and ointments work on the skin better than the sprays or powders, because they stick to your skin better. The usual dose regimen is twice a day, after washing your feet. Please note: if the fungus has gotten under your toenails, making them yellow and thick, you will need medical help.

You can kill the fungi in your socks by washing them in hot water. Add bleach to whites. Do the same with your sheets. Oh, and your girlfriend’s socks. You can also spray bleach (a 10% solution in water is strong enough) on any mold or fungus you see growing in your shower.

Getting rid of fungus in shoes is much more difficult. Wash them if they’re washable. Spray them with antifungal spray and put antifungal powder in them. Best is to accept that you might have to get rid of them and shell out some dough for a new pair or two.

Keep your feet as cool and dry as possible. Change socks twice a day. Try a pair of super-absorbent odor eating inserts. Change shoes often, or go without when you can. Open shoes or sandals give your feet more air, and fresh air is poison to foot fungi.

Here’s something that might surprise you. You can have “fungus feet” with no odor at all. You know those foot and heel cracks that so many people have? We think it’s just desert dryness, but often it is really a type of fungal infection. After-shower treatment with a pumice stone and antifungal cream will clear those cracks right up. Make this a regular part of your routine and they’ll stay gone.

Having tinea pedis does not mean you are unhygienic or somehow bad. It’s just an infection. And in spite of her socks taking on your Eau de Foot aroma, your girlfriend is not likely to catch it, unless she starts wearing your brother’s shoes too. People are much more likely to get tinea from the gym than from their partner. Take the steps above and soon she’ll ditch the couch and be back in your fragrance-free bed.

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