A classic double-whammy: Athlete's foot and swimmer's ear

Credit: Vincent Laforet/Allsport

Recently, I've had the misfortune of being saddled with a simultaneous double case of athlete's foot and swimmers ear.

Given my daily exercise regimen and frequent proximity to water, it's a wonder I hadn't experienced these common athletic ailments before. Nevertheless, I had avoided them long enough, and it was only a matter of time before I encountered the problems and needed to discover a remedy.

I did what anyone would do: I called my mom!

I wasn't just calling because she's my mom; I was calling because she is a practicing physician who was bound to have quick and easy solutions to get rid of my infections, and to tell me how best to avoid succumbing to them again. As always, Mother did know best!

The medical term for athlete's foot is tinea pedis (which sounds like it could be the name of an adult film actress in a Jackie Collins book, if you ask me). Scary as it may sound, this common fungus affects nearly 75 percent of the population, and not just athletes. Found in damp places such as locker rooms, domestic bathrooms and swimming pools, this fungus also thrives in poorly ventilated areas such as the space between your toes. It can also be transmitted through towels and sweaty socks.

Symptoms are dry, red, and flaky skin accompanied by a slight burning or itching sensation. The onset of athlete's foot may be slow and barely noticeable, but it tends to flare up quickly once the initial stages of infection begin. Because the fungus spreads in moist environments, it will almost certainly grow when you wear your shoes (especially if you are prone to sweaty feet or if you go running with an early infection). If possible, stop the infection from spreading by going barefoot, and always powder your feet with common talc before you put on your work or athletic footwear.

Once contracted, tinea pedis is easily eradicated but can recur (much like herpes: when you have it, you're stuck with it). There are measures you can take, however, to avoid re-infection:

  • Wear sandals or flip-flops on pool decks and in locker rooms.
  • Dry your feet thoroughly after swimming or showering.
  • Apply talcum powder or medicinal spray to previously infected areas to prevent recurrence.
  • Change your socks frequently (and wash them frequently).
  • Try not to wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row (let them air out completely).
  • Wear non-synthetic socks that breathe better than manmade materials.

If you contract athlete's foot, it can be remedied by following the above preventative measures consistently for about two weeks. Tinactin, an over-the-counter spray sold in most drugstores, proved to be very effective in eradicating my own case. Slightly more severe cases may require medical attention and a prescription medication.

"Swimmer's ear" is one of a number of names for infection of the outer ear canal. It is also called fungus of the ear, jungle ear, or for the scientifically inclined, otitis medea. This infection is caused by a fungus, but more often, it is the result of one of nature's common everyday bacteria.

When water gets into your ear, it may bring with it bacteria or fungus particles. If the water in the ear dries out, the bacteria and funguses can't grow. But if your ears stay wet after a long swim, the bacteria and funguses flourish, resulting in a painful "swimmer's ear." The ear canal becomes swollen and tender to the touch, especially on the tragus (the triangular piece of skin on your outer ear that shields the inner canal).

Several over-the-counter eardrops are currently available to help eradicate swimmer's ear, and a few days of treatment should do the trick. Plain old hydrogen peroxide, when dabbed on a Q-Tip and rubbed gently along the inside of the ear canal, can help kill any bacteria or fungus that may have found its way into breeding grounds.

Most drugstores also carry alcohol-based products like Auri-Dri and Swim-Ear that you can use after each swim to help dry out your ear canal and stop the infections before they happen.

If you are prone to ear infections or have trouble airing out your ears after a swim or a shower, rubbing alcohol can also work to absorb water and kill any harmful bacteria. Mom even suggested a concoction of alcohol and vinegar (which contains acid that wipes out all fungus and bacteria), but warned that if you have overly sensitive ears you should consult a doctor before mixing any homegrown medicines on your own. Use an eye-dropper or a Q-tip to apply your remedy lightly to the inside of the ear after swimming or showering.

Everyday athletes are constantly exposed to various potential ailments, both serious and trite. To prevent the trite from becoming serious, however, the above tips can help you nip your problems in the bud!

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