Feet have it rough — each step we take means a pounding for them with the force of our body weight. And the powers-that-be keep raising the number of times per day we’re supposed to do this to our feet, with one recent study recommending as many as 15,000 steps per day for better health.
All this means that feet can get pretty gnarly. But that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate peeling skin between your toes.
By itself, peeling skin between toes isn’t a reason to freak out. However it can sometimes point to a more serious underlying health issue or infection.
Athlete’s foot (or jock itch for the feet)
Athlete’s foot is a fungal skin infection on the feet, and it’s most commonly found between toes. It’s a type of tinea, or ringworm — a misnomer, since it’s a fungus, not a worm.
But the name “athlete’s foot” is apt, since athletes and gym-goers are at particular risk. Fungus thrives on feet that stay warm and moist for long periods, and it spreads easily by direct or indirect contact. So think of your gym’s locker room and showers as huge petri dishes made for cultivating foot fungus.
If you have athlete’s foot, be particularly careful not to itch your feet and then itch *ahem* anywhere else. Athlete’s foot can transfer via hands to the groin, where it morphs into the dreaded “jock itch.”
Those with diabetes should be particularly cautious about athlete’s foot, as they can be susceptible to peripheral vascular disease, which inhibits blood flow in the arms and legs. Poor circulation makes it harder to fight infections of the feet, and out-of-control infections may lead to complications that make amputation necessary.
Symptoms of athlete’s foot include:
- flaking or peeling skin between toes or on sides of feet
- intense itchiness
- red, irritated skin
- stinging or burning sensation
- oozing blisters
Athlete’s foot can be treated by keeping feet clean and dry and by using an antifungal powder or cream. Tips for treatment include:
- Wash feet with soap and dry them completely at least twice per day, while infection lasts.
- Keep feet and spaces between toes as dry as possible.
- Change socks multiple times per day if necessary, to keep feet dry.
- Wear well-ventilated shoes.
- Wear flip-flops instead of going barefoot in locker rooms and public showers (this is a good preventative measure for everyone!).
- Use a drying or antifungal foot powder.
- Apply antifungal cream twice per day, and keep applying for 1–2 weeks after symptoms are gone to prevent reinfection.
If you’ve tried all this and athlete’s foot doesn’t clear up, a doctor can prescribe further antifungal creams or oral medications.
Shoe contact dermatitis
Shoe contact dermatitis is caused by an allergic reaction to footwear, including shoes and socks. It’s as if your shoes are tired of dealing with your gross, smelly feet and have decided to fight back. Talk about electric shoes!
Shoe contact dermatitis often begins on top of the big toe and spreads from there to the top of the foot, but it can affect any part of the foot or leg that’s exposed to the allergen. Symptoms include:
- blisters or cracking
- pain or burning sensation
The allergen can be any material or chemical used to make footwear, including:
- rubber and/or accelerants used in its manufacture
- chemicals used to make or treat leather, such as dimethyl fumarate, chromates, or formaldehyde
- metals such as nickel or cobalt
- adhesives dyes
For treatment, it helps to identify the allergen and keep it from contacting the skin. A dermatologist or allergist can help identify the cause using patch tests. If they find it’s a material found in your favorite pumps, then sorry, you’ll have to part ways with them if the allergen can’t be removed.
The condition should clear up on its own after removing the allergen, but you can use a topical steroid cream to lessen any pain or itching in the meantime.
Dyshidrotic eczema is a form of atopic dermatitis that causes small, itchy blisters on hands or feet, mainly on the toes, soles, fingers, and palms.
- small, deep blisters
- mild to intense itching
- peeling, flaking, or cracked skin
- redness pain
Dyshidrotic eczema is associated with allergies, including seasonal allergies, so it may affect your feet more during certain seasons. It’s also hereditary, so you’re more likely to get it if you’ve heard relatives complaining about it.
And unfortunately, ladies, it’s twice as common in women than men.
Other triggers include:
- metals such as nickel or cobalt
- prolonged moistness of hands or feet
Minor cases of dyshidrotic eczema can often be soothed using at-home treatments, including:
- skin-repair creams
- avoiding harsh soaps containing chemicals like triclosan
- removing jewelry around affected areas
- avoiding hot water and excess sweating or washing
More persistent cases may require a doctor’s treatment, which may include:
- steroid creams
- draining of blisters
Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition characterized by the body producing too many skin cells, forming red, raised scales or plaques that can crack, peel, or bleed, and can itch like crazy. Symptoms may come and go periodically.
- red, itchy skin scales or plaques
- dry, cracked skin
- pitted, ridged nails
- stiff and swollen joints
Although the exact cause of psoriasis isn’t known, it’s understood to be due to an autoimmune response in which T-cells and other white blood cells attack healthy skin cells as if attacking an infection.
So the main goal of treatment, aside from easing the uncomfortable symptoms, is to slow the overgrowth of skin cells. For psoriasis symptoms on the hands or feet, the National Psoriasis Foundation urges careful and urgent treatment, due to their sensitive skin and bones.
Treatments range from over-the-counter (OTC) creams to specialized prescription medications, including:
- moisturizing creams or lotions
- salicylic acid
- coal tar
- topical corticosteroids
- synthetic forms of vitamin A or D
- light therapy
- biologic injections or infusions
Trench foot, also called “immersion foot,” is a condition caused by prolonged wetness of the feet that can cause pain, swelling, tingling, blotchy skin, and in severe cases, tissue death.
Its name is associated with the horrid, wet conditions of trench warfare practiced in World War I, during which tens of thousands experienced the condition.
- pain or itching
- red, swollen skin
- skin and tissue death
Most people should be able to manage better foot care than trench-bound soldiers, but trench foot is still a real possibility in an emergency situation like getting trapped in a flood. It’s also something that those who spend time camping, backpacking, or mountaineering should take special care to avoid.
Here are some tips to avoid trench foot if you find yourself at risk:
- keep feet clean and dry
- elevate and air-dry feet
- wear a fresh, dry pair of socks each day
- don’t wear socks to bed (unless camping, in which case always keep a separate dry pair just for snuggling into your sleeping bag)
- apply a warm, dry compress to affected areas
Not to be confused with the much-feared but harmless rippling thigh fat known as cellulite, cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that causes skin to become red, swollen, and itchy.
This foot-loving bacteria most often targets the lower legs, and infection can spread if not properly treated, becoming a life-threatening concern if it reaches the bloodstream.
Symptoms of cellulitis include:
- red, swollen skin
- skin that’s warm to the touch
- spreading infection
Although the infection can spread on your body, cellulitis isn’t normally passed from person to person. It’s caused by streptococcus or staphylococcus bacteria entering the skin through an open cut or wound, which is a great reason to keep wounds clean and covered — especially for those with a weak immune system.
Feet are an often overlooked body part — literally and figuratively. Sometimes the sheer number of body parts that need care and attention is overwhelming, and the feet just seem hardier and more self-sufficient than fussy facial skin or whiny teeth, for example.
But though feet are indeed tough, when they start to complain — look out! Luckily there are some simple things you can do to keep your feet happy and healthy.
- Keep feet clean and dry.
- Change socks regularly.
- Wear foot protection such as flip-flops in public areas like gyms and pools.
- Take early signs of infection seriously and seek treatment.
- Don’t share footwear or care items such as nail clippers or towels.
- Clean and cover any nicks or cuts to the feet.
Ending on the right foot
Now armed with information about the possible causes, you’ll be that much closer to finding the right treatment.
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