Here's a rundown of some of the most popular and commonly encountered types of over-the-counter (OTC) foot fungus medications you'll find on the shelves. These might be your first stop for treating athlete's foot. Most antifungal products cost little and generic formulations cost less.
Active ingredient: terbinafine
Common brand names: Lamisil AT, Lamisil Once. Generics are available. Lamisil also comes in a spray and powder spray.
How it works: The most effective of all OTC treatments, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, terbinafine is an antifungal product that kills the fungus and keeps it from coming back by inhibiting an enzyme it requires to grow.
How and when to use: Applying original Lamisil cream once a day for one week heals up to 97% of all cases, according to the Academy. A single application of the newer, film-forming Lamisil Once effectively treats athlete's foot.
Important information: In very rare cases, adverse effects may include blistering, itching, redness or irritation.
Because terbinafine works twice as fast as other foot fungus treatments, you'll probably need only one tube instead of two or more, so you might save money. The film-forming, one-time-use variety costs more.
Active ingredient: clotrimazole
Common brand names: Lotrimin, Mycelex. Generics are available.
How it works: Clotrimazole is an enzyme-inhibiting product that gets rid of fungus and prevents it from growing back.
How and when to use: Apply a small amount of clotrimazole cream or lotion twice a day for two to four weeks.
Important information: Avoid other topical creams or lotions because they might reduce the effectiveness of clotrimazole. Call your doctor if you experience severe blistering or other signs of further irritation, or if your athlete's foot doesn't clear up in four weeks. Lotrimin also comes in spray and powder spray.
Active ingredients: tolnaftate
Common brand names: Tinactin, Desenex spray, Absorbine, Blis-To-Sol, Ting. Generics are available.
How it works: Tolnaftate inhibits an enzyme to stop the growth of fungus and prevent its recurrence.
How and when to use: Apply gel, cream, lotion or spray two times daily for two to six weeks.
Important information: Call your physician in the unlikely event that the use of tolnaftate results in severe blistering, itching, redness, peeling, drying or irritation.
Active ingredient: miconazole
Common brand names: Micatin. Generics are available.
How it works: Miconazole halts and prevents fungal growth by inhibiting an enzyme.
How and when to use: Apply the cream, lotion, spray or powder twice a day for four weeks.
Important information: See a physician if irritation or blisters develop.
Active ingredient: undecylenic acid
Common brand names: Blis-To-Sol liquid, Cruex.
How it works: Undecylenic acid is an antifungal fatty acid that kills fungus and stops it from growing on the skin.
How and when to use: Use two times a day for four weeks.
Important information: Irritation and other possible adverse effects are rare. Your visible symptoms may disappear before the condition is actually cured.
How to Use Topical Antifungal Medications
Clean and dry the area, especially between toes, before applying antifungal products. One good way to dry the webbing between your toes is by using lamb's wool, which can be purchased at any drug store. Wash your hands before and after using these medicines to keep the infection from spreading to your fingers and fingernails. Avoid getting any antifungal agent into your mouth, nose, or eyes.
After applying any antifungal medication, cover the area with loose gauze only (no tight-fitting bandages) to allow air circulation. Go barefoot when possible, and wear 100% cotton socks and loose shoes when you must wear shoes. Sandals or flip-flops are also a good choice. If you do wear shoes, choose ones that are well-ventilated and made of a natural material like leather.
Continue to use all these products for a time period of two to four weeks, even if your fungus appears to be cured.
When to See the Doctor
Topical antifungal medications available OTC are a good option for mild cases of athlete's foot. After about four weeks, if your athlete's foot doesn't get better, it's time to see a doctor. You may need prescription topical antifungal medications, which are stronger and more effective than anything available OTC.
Furthermore, your physician may prescribe you oral antifungal medications. Notably, oral antifungal medications need to be taken for several months and can cause liver damage. Your physician may need to follow your liver enzymes, and people with liver damage shouldn't take the drug.
Finally, bacterial infections could result from itching and scratching and may require prescription antibiotics.