According to specialists, those who use alternative treatments to cure their severe athlete’s foot run the danger of developing rashes, respiratory issues, and even cancer.
Clinicians raised the alarm about the growing incidence of “untreatable” athlete’s foot infections in last week’s Mail on Sunday. A form of fungus is the common skin condition that causes the flesh between the toes to become irritated and cracked. This fungus is getting more and more resistant to even the most potent over-the-counter medicines.
We got a flood of messages from readers who had the disease, many of whom claimed to have tried different remedies available on drugstore shelves.
A MoS reader shared how he swears by potassium permanganate, a mild antiseptic that is dissolved in water. The purple liquid, a form of crystallized salt that can be bought in pharmacies, has been used for more than a century for skin problems such as eczema and leg ulcers, as well as athlete’s foot before the invention of modern antifungal drugs.
The reader says the treatment “seems to keep foot infections away,” but added that the “only downside” is that it can turn his feet purple for days. But experts warn that ingesting potassium permanganate can be deadly and inhaling its fumes can lead to shortness of breath and even lung damage.
Patients who resort to alternative remedies to treat painful athlete’s foot risk getting rashes, lung problems and even cancer, experts warn
Another remedy mentioned by some readers, gentian violet – an antiseptic solution with mild antifungal properties – has even been linked to cancer. It is banned in many countries, but it is still legal to sell it in the UK.
Other DIY treatments mentioned include tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar, sesame oil, and even bleach.
Experts are now calling for new NHS guidelines to ensure GPs pick up cases of drug-resistant athlete’s foot. They want them to take skin samples for testing as this will help them find the specific medication needed for each infection.
Athlete’s foot is caused by a type of fungus called dermatophyte, which also causes ringworm — a scaly, red rash that can appear anywhere on the body. These infections affect millions of people in the UK every year.
Dermatophytes are usually transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. The fungal spores can live on the skin and under fingernails for some time without causing a rash, and thrive in warm, moist places such as wet towels or the floors of locker rooms. Specific antifungal treatments are the only effective way to destroy the fungus. The drug recommended by the NHS is terbinafine, the active ingredient found in the popular cream Lamisil Once and other over-the-counter treatments. This is one of the drugs that is becoming less and less effective, experts warn.
UNSAFE: DIY treatments like gentian violet can have dangerous side effects
Over time, fungi can evolve to develop stronger defenses against drugs designed to kill them.
“I deal with patients suffering from difficult-to-treat fungal infections and many of them will have tried a herbal remedy before arriving at my clinic,” says Professor Darius Armstrong-James, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London . There is no evidence that any herbal remedy works as well as antifungal medicines.
Studies show that tea tree oil is a mild antiseptic, meaning it can potentially prevent the growth of fungi. However, an Australian study published in 1992 found that patients with a dermatophyte infection who received tea tree oil were no more likely to cure their infection than patients who received no treatment at all.
“Patients often keep adding tea tree oil until they see an improvement, but it can burn and eventually damage the skin,” says Dr Neil McCarthy, an expert on fungal infections at Queen Mary University of London. “There isn’t enough evidence that these treatments do anything. There are worrying risks associated with using it.”
Prof Armstrong-James and other experts say that under the proposed new guidelines, GPs would perform a skin scrape biopsy on patients thought to have a drug-resistant fungal infection.
Here, a doctor uses a scalpel to take a small skin sample from the site of the infection, which is then sent to a lab to be tested. This would allow experts to see if the infection was resistant to common treatments such as terbinafine and if it is sensitive to another antifungal drug. The doctor can then prescribe the right medication.
Experts claim that by ensuring that fungal infections are treated with the right medicines, the NHS could drastically reduce the number of drug-resistant fungal infections of the skin circulating across the country.
‘It’s time the NHS took fungal infections of the skin more seriously,’ says Prof Armstrong-James. “We need to better recognize these drug-resistant infections if we want to prevent them from spreading.
‘GPs don’t routinely do skin scrapings, and it’s important that this is done more. If we can get better at detecting drug-resistant fungal infections, we can effectively treat more patients and reduce the number of people using herbal remedies.”
DIY athlete’s foot cures could cause burns – and even raise cancer risk