Itching feet and toes is a very common occurrence and not always a medical problem. Everybody experiences itchy feet at some time or the other in their lives. There are many causes for itchy feet and toes. Not all of these causes are pathological in nature. In fact, most cases of itchy feet and toes are a normal and temporary sensation caused by a simple irritation of the skin.
For example, by walking the whole day while wearing socks and shoes that do not provide adequate ventilation to the feet and promote accumulation of sweat is one common reason for itchy feet. However, the itchy sensation in this instance usually relieves when the socks and shoes are removed, and the sweat evaporates.
There are also pathological conditions (such as skin diseases) that can result in itchy feet and toes. In many such conditions, the problem is isolated to the feet and toes like in athlete’s foot while in other cases it may also extend beyond the feet to the ankle area and sometimes even high up to the lower leg. Others may be more widespread skin conditions affecting multiple regions of the body as is seen in psoriasis where the rash and itching may occur anywhere on the body.
Causes of Itchy Feet and Toes
Technically referred to as tinea pedis, athlete’s foot is a fungal infection of the feet. Tinea pedis infection results in reddish and itchy infectious patches on various parts of the foot, such as the skin between the toes, on upper part and sides of the feet, and on the soles. The infectious skin patches may also crack and peel off. As the name suggests, athlete’s foot is a condition that afflicts many athletes. However, anybody who has wet, sweaty feet for long periods of time can get tinea pedis.
Athlete’s foot is infectious, and one may contract it through sharing of personal items (such as socks, shoes and towels) with an infected person. Treatment of athlete’s foot consists of anti-fungal medications (both oral and topical). Many of the anti-fungal medications are available over-the-counter. The best way to prevent athlete’s foot is to keep the feet (especially the areas between the toes) dry and well-ventilated. Socks should be washed daily.
Read more on ringworm infection.
Cutaneous larva migrans
Cutaneous larva migrans refers to parasitic immature intestinal worms that are often associated with the feces of animals such as cats and dogs. These parasitic larvae come in contact with the skin while walking barefoot in the moist soil or sand. For this reason, cutaneous larva migrans is also known as creeping eruption, sandworm, or ground itch.
These worms are mostly found in the soil of tropical and subtropical locations such as Australia and the Americas. A characteristic feature of infestation with cutaneous larva migrans is the appearance of serpentine, reddish tunnels in the skin of the feet and other parts of the leg. These tunnels are 2-3 millimeters wide and several centimeters in length. They are the paths made by the larvae as they travel beneath the skin.
In most cases, the itchy lesions created by the parasitic larvae heal without treatment in about 4-8 weeks. Oral or topical application of anti-parasitic drugs (such as thiabendazole) can prevent itching and kill the parasites. With such treatment, the itching stops within one day, and the lesions may heal within a week. The best way to prevent cutaneous larva migrans is to avoid bare foot contact with moist soil or sand.
Tungiasis is another parasitic infection of the foot that can cause itchy feet. Tungiasis is caused by Tunga penetrans, a flea that burrows in the skin. Also known as the bug of the foot or sandflea, Tunga penetrans lives in moisture-laden soil in parts of India and South America. Walking barefoot on such soil results in the parasitic infection of the foot.
Tungiasis is characterized by a 4-10 millimeters wide white rash with a black center. This rash is both itchy and painful. Left untreated, the rash heals on its own within two weeks. A doctor can also remove the sandflea physically. Anti-parasitic topical applications containing thiabendazole can also be used for the treatment of tungiasis.
Sweaty sock syndrome
Sweaty sock syndrome is characterized by dry, reddish, and shiny skin on the sole of the foot. The affected skin may eventually crack, causing pain and itching. Sweaty sock syndrome is also known as juvenile plantar dermatosis, because it usually affects kids suffering from atopic dermatitis. There is no specific treatment for sweaty sock syndrome because the cause of this condition is unknown.
However, some general measures can promote healing of this condition. Use of well-fitting shoes, and application of petroleum jelly and dimeticone can minimize the friction at the feet. Any fissures caused by this condition can be healed by covering the affected areas with plaster. Sweaty sock syndrome usually resolves on its own before puberty.
Pitted keratolysis is characterized by the appearance of small and shallow cavities in the upper layers of the skin on the soles and the palms. These pits on the skin may sometimes be itchy. Pitted kertolysis commonly affects individuals who suffer from excessive perspiration. Medical treatment may not be necessary. However, over-the-counter antibiotic ointments may help in treating pitted keratolysis. Keeping the feet dry may help in preventing the occurrence of this condition.
Acroangiodermatitis is characterized by the appearance of ulcers and purple patches on the skin of the feet. This condition usually afflicts young individuals who suffer from various blood vessel disorders. The lesions in acroangiodermatitis are a result of impaired blood flow in the feet, caused by conditions such as venous fistula and venous thrombosis. These lesions are itchy and painful.
Palmoplantar keratoderma is characterized by thick skin on the soles and the palms. This thickening of the skin occurs in a variety of acquired or inherited skin disorders, and may appear at any age.
Itchy ankles may or may not be associated with skin rashes. Dry skin, diabetes, intestinal parasites, varicose veins, hypothyroidism, heart disease, kidney disease, and psoriasis can result in itchy ankles but no skin rash. Itchy ankles associated with skin rashes may occur due to heat, cholinergic urticaria, allergic reactions, stasis eczema, Crohn’s disease, mites, and bed bugs.