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Original Issue


The latest study of athlete's foot shows that the rule book on how to prevent the pesky fungus infection should be rewritten

The time-honored rituals of curtailing athlete's foot by wading through antiseptic foot baths, dousing floors with disinfectants, sterilizing bath mats, towels, slippers and socks may be well and good for keeping areas in and around swimming pools, gymnasiums and shower rooms clean. But as far as killing off athlete's foot is concerned, they are as ineffective as sulphur and molasses.

This, at least, is one expert medical opinion. For the past 22 months, Dr. Rudolf L. Baer and his associates at New York University have been investigating ways to wipe out that pesky fungus that feasts on the toes. While their research, financed by the Army, is only partially completed, they have turned up some heartening—if not startling—news for feet on the shower room floor.

For many years most everyone has believed or been warned that athlete's foot is highly contagious. This idea that you "catch" the itching, burning infection directly from another person's infected feet is behind the maze of regulations which city and state health departments have set up to restrict the spread of the disease. But Dr. Baer and a number of other dermatologists over the past 25 years have never gone along with this theory. In their opinion, flare-ups of athlete's foot rarely result from a new, outside infection. Almost everyone, they believe, picks up the fungus in childhood and, like the bacteria which causes boils, it lives harmlessly on the skin for years. Only when an individual's resistance becomes lowered can the fungus, already on the feet, get a toehold.

To prove the point, Dr. Baer's team ran a series of tests on more than 100 doctors, nurses and technicians who served as guinea pigs. In one experiment, they selected a group of volunteers known to be free of athlete's foot fungi, then deliberately tried to give them an acute infection. For 30 minutes at a time, once a week, the subjects bathed one of their feet in a pan of water containing 100,000 times the amount of fungi they could possibly pick up from a shower room floor. At the end of six weeks, the researchers found that while more than half of the exposed feet harbored fungi, not one had developed a single infection.


From all the evidence collected, concludes Dr. Baer, most of the measures commonly used today to prevent athlete's foot are not only ineffective but are potentially harmful and should be discarded.

•It is useless to douse areas around bathrooms, showers and swimming pools with fungicidal agents since there is no proof whatsoever that these are breeding grounds for the fungus.

•It is equally useless to attempt to sterilize shoes and socks. While they may contain fungi, sterilization does nothing to the feet, which continue to carry the microbes. In fact, it is likely to do more harm than good; chemicals used in sterilizing may irritate the skin to such an extent that dormant fungi can stage a full-scale invasion.

•It is naive to expect that wading for a few seconds through a basin of antiseptic solution will help ward off the disease. These stagnant, unhygienic puddles should be abandoned.

•There is no reason to exclude persons with athlete's foot from public facilities since the relatively small number of fungus particles they might drop is unlikely to cause trouble.

What then can be done to guard against athlete's foot? Dr. Baer answers with six suggestions:

1. Wear perforated shoes whenever possible, to allow perspiration to evaporate. Moisture makes the skin between the toes soggy and the chemical skin reaction, normally acid, becomes neutral or alkaline. Either of these conditions lowers resistance to the fungus.

2. Wear wool or cotton socks which will absorb moisture, rather than nylon, rayon or other nonabsorbing fabrics.

3. Regularly use a dry, mild foot powder that contains a fatty acid.

4. Insert lamb's wool between the toes if the web of skin tends to be soft and moist.

5. Carefully dry feet and toes after bathing and change footgear whenever the socks and shoes become wet.

6. Use nonalkaline soapless detergents when washing the feet rather than ordinary toilet or other soaps.