Feet - getting to the root of the problem

We've all joked about 'cheesy feet', but having sweaty or smelly feet can be a real problem. Not only can it be embarrassing, it also makes you prone to some painful problems. Your feet have about 4,200 sweat glands on every square inch - more than anywhere else in your body, apart from your hands. And those sweat glands lie behind many of our foot problems.

We've all joked about 'cheesy feet', but having sweaty or smelly feet can be a real problem. Not only can it be embarrassing, it also makes you prone to some painful problems. Your feet have about 4,200 sweat glands on every square inch - more than anywhere else in your body, apart from your hands. And those sweat glands lie behind many of our foot problems. On the hands, this sweat evaporates. On the feet, it often doesn't, because your feet are enclosed most of the time. That means that bacteria that live naturally on your skin start breaking down the sweat, making that awful distrinctive smell.

How you can help

Fortunately, some simple measures can make all the difference - although you'll need a little investment in new footwear to begin with. Don't forget that if you have diabetes, you should consult your chiropodist regularly before any new procedure, including using a pumice stone. You also need to avoid bare feet at any time if you have diabetes.

  • Leather is better. Plastic shoes trap sweat, but so do plastic linings to leather shoes. Stick to leather shoes without linings, and buy removable insoles you can wash every day
  • Let your toes hang out. As much as possible, wear open-toed sandals to let the air circulate. Flip-flops also work, but they can be easy to trip on - so if you're not entirely steady on your feet, steer clear
  • Sock it to sweat! Nylon socks have to go - they don't absorb sweat at all. Wool socks (with some man-made fibre) are actually best of all, as they're more absorbant than cotton ones. Make sure your socks aren't too tight, as this will also encourage sweating
  • If you wear slip-on shoes, take them off whenever you're sitting down (as long as your feet aren't already smelly!)
  • Wash socks every day, on the hottest cycle, and make sure they're completely dry when you put them on
  • Put talcum powder inside your shoes regularly to absorb sweat
  • Wash your feet at least daily, and dry them extremely thoroughly, paying particular attention to the area between the toes. Athlete's foot often starts in the warmest, most squashed part of your feet, between your little toe and fourth toe
  • Soak your feet in warm water (with a few drops of tea tree oil) for 20 minutes each evening, then use a pumice stone to get rid of hard skin
  • After washing, check between your toes for athlete's foot
  • Try wiping your feet daily with surgical spirit (stop if you get skin irritation).

Athlete's foot - not just a problem for athletes

Athlete's foot is a very common fungal infection that affects your feet, usually on the skin between your toes. It's especially common among athletes as they wear close-fitting (often synthetic) trainers and do lots of exercise, both of which encourage sweat. However, anyone who sweats (which, after all, is all of us) can get athlete's foot.

Athlete's foot makes your skin red, sore and itchy. You'll often have a white 'discharge' of flaky or soggy skin, with cracking between the toes. This in turn makes it easier for bacteria to get in through the cracks, putting your at risk of a painful baterial infection such as cellulitis.

Fungal skin infections love anywhere that's warm and moist - and that sums up the inside of the average shoe pretty neatly! Once you've got rid of athlete's foot, you can prevent it with all the same simple measures you use to stop sweaty, smelly feet. To get rid of it, though, you'll need rather more.

You can buy effective creams and powders for treating athlete's foot from your pharmacist, or get them on prescription. They need to be applied two or three times a day for several days. Powders are best for infections between your toes, as creams can make the skin even more moist. Be really obsessional about drying between your toes (use a separate dry, clean towel) - and never put socks and shoes on until your feet are really dry.

Fungi don't just like the skin of your feet!

Apart from your skin, there's another important part of your feet which is vulnerable to fungal infection - and that's your toenails. Fungi can spread from the skin if you have athlete's foot and get into your toenails. The big toenail is often first to go, but the infection can spread to other toenails and sometimes to your fingernails too. Although it's rarely painful, your nail isn't going to look pretty - fungal infections cause thickening, flaking and discolouration. In more severe cases the whole nail can come away from the nail bed, and the surrounding skin is more vulnerable to painful infections. Topical lacquers painted on to the nail can sometimes help but need to be applied regularly for up to a year. Even this may not solve the problem - tablets taken once a day or in short courses are more effective, but they can cause severe side effects in a small number of people. That's why you can get the nail lacquer from your pharmacist, but will need a prescription from your doctor for tablets.

Your doctor will probably want to take a clipping of your toenail and send it to the laboratory to be cultured before starting treatment. That's because several other conditions look very similar to fungal nail infections. Once it's gone, the simple foot health measures above will greatly reduce the chance of the infection coming back.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.