As the cold weather starts to bite, it's important to wrap up and take care. But - whilst we might pull on our winter scarves and gloves - many of us neglect our feet at this time of year. We look at common winter foot care mistakes you might be making and how to avoid them.
Blaming the weather
If you're suffering from cold feet this winter, the temperature is the most likely cause. However, there are other conditions that can leave your feet feeling disproportionately chilly.
If your feet remain cold when in warmer, indoor temperatures or take an age to thaw out, it could be that you are suffering from an underlying health problem such as underactive thyroid or Raynaud's. Conditions like diabetes can cause damage to your nerves, affecting sensation in your feet. If this might apply to you, double check with your GP. Some medications can constrict the blood vessels, too - if in doubt, speak to your pharmacist.
Putting up with wet feet
It makes sense that if you get wet feet, you ought to change into fresh shoes and socks as quickly as possible. Wearing wet shoes, especially in very cold weather, can cause a condition called trench foot that can be uncomfortable and lead to infection.
"With trench foot, your skin goes all wrinkly as it might after a bath," explains podiatrist Stephanie Owen of SO Podiatry. "You might also get bacterial or fungal infections such as athlete's foot or fungal nail from the dark, warm and moist conditions."
In a recent Patient survey, 46% of over 350 medical professionals said a fungal nail infection was the most common foot problem they see in their surgery. While 30% cited athlete's foot as the podiatry ailment they come across most often. These are encouraged by warm, moist environments, including keeping damp shoes on when you go into the warm. They will warrant a trip to the pharmacist and possibly your GP.
Trench foot is less common but potentially serious, and any symptoms of possible trench foot should be checked out by a doctor quickly. If the doctor is happy symptoms are mild, they may recommend self-treatment, including keeping feet warm, dry and clean.
Rushing to warm up
Picture the scene, you've been sitting on the bus or walking home from work and your feet are frozen. It's natural to want to rectify this situation as quickly as possible, so as soon as you can you stick your frozen toes on the radiator.
But whilst it may seem logical to want to rid your feet of cold as quickly as possible, exposing chilly feet to the heat too rapidly can create more problems than it solves.
"Exposing cold feet to hot temperatures straightaway can create basal dilation of the tiny blood vessels," explains Owen. "This can cause bruising, bleeding and even chilblains. The best way to rewarm your feet is to do it slowly and gradually to avoid this problem."
So rather than heading straight for your hottest heat source, try slipping on some indoor footwear and moving around to increase circulation and warm feet gradually.
Thinking thicker socks are best
Most of us have a pair of trusty, fluffy socks at the back of our drawer, just waiting for the cold weather. However, whilst pulling on a thick pair of socks under your boots may seem to provide a barrier against the cold, you'd actually be better off layering.
"Rather than wearing thick socks, it's better to layer the socks to create thermal air between each layer, helping the heat to stay in," explains Owen. "Choose a natural fibre sock, such as wool, as they will provide more warmth."
Not checking your footwear
36% of medical professionals in the same survey blamed 'poor shoe choice' as the biggest mistake people make when it comes to their feet. And while you might think you're safe with your trusty winter boots, you might want to think again.
"If your winter boots are just a couple of years old and you only wear them for a few hours each day, they're probably OK," explains Owen. "But it's important to check that they're not worn out. Check the lining to ensure there are no rips or holes, and turn the boot upside down to check for any cracks or splits."
Wearing winter boots all day
Warm temperatures and likelihood of sweating, means that your feet may be prone to infection and other issues if left to their own devices in overwarm footwear. Instead, make sure you have a change of shoes to hand for the moment you reach your destination.
"As soon as you arrive at a warm place, change your footwear to avoid sweating," advises Owen. "Also make sure you dry out your boots - take the liner out, and turn the boot upside down to rid the toe box of moisture which may lead to fungal infections.”
Assuming your feet don't change
You might also find that your size 6 boots feel a little more snug than you'd expect when you slip into them. Rather than assume it's just the feeling of heavier footwear, it's important that you ensure your feet are the same size as they were a couple of years back.
"We have our children's feet measured," explains Owen. "But it's important to have your own feet measured too. Our feet tend to get a little longer as we age, and other factors such as pregnancy or weight gain can cause a change in foot size."
Wearing too-small footwear can cause a number of problems which are best avoided.
Wellies provide protection from the wet weather, so it seems logical to pull on a pair when the temperatures dip, or when there's snow on the ground. But when it comes to protecting your feet from the cold, wellies are not the best solution.
"Wellington boots are just vulcanised rubber, which provides no protection from the cold. Instead, choose lined boots, preferably wool-lined, to keep your feet warm. And warm the boots before you slip your feet in," advises Owen.
Choosing high heels
If you're thinking of slipping on a pair of heels to complement your festive outfit, you might want to think again. Whilst they might look great, high heels can cause foot problems by forcing the foot into an unnatural position.
"High heels force your foot downwards, putting a lot of pressure on your toes and the ball of your foot," explains Owen. "This pressure can cause blisters, corns and ingrowing toenails. In addition, you might experience a bruising blister or callus on the sole of your foot as a result of pinching."
However, if you've got your heart set on a sparkly pair of stilettos, there are ways to minimise the damage.
"You can protect your feet by getting a silicone gel pad to protect the ball of the feet, and wrap a kind of felt dressing known as 'fleecy web' over the joint of the toe where it's likely to rub. This will create a barrier and protect your toe," explains Owen.
In addition, it's worth knowing that when it comes to wearing heels, it's better to choose a slightly lower style.
"I'd recommend going with something of a safe level - perhaps 2 to 2.5 inches," says Owen. "This allows more stability. If you do go higher, try to choose a platform shoe that's higher at the front as well, meaning the slope of the foot isn't as extreme."
"It's also worth choosing a chunky heel as this will give you more stability. People with quite a flexible range of ankle and foot movement may also benefit from a shoe strap around the ankle meaning they're less likely to slip out or roll over on their ankle, causing a sprain or leading to a fall."
If you throw caution to the wind and venture out in a pair of stilettos, there are things you can do to minimise the damage the next day.
"Try soaking your feet in warm, salty water," advises Owen. "If there are any blisters, try not to pierce them as this can create a port of entry for bacteria which may result in infection. Instead, put a clean dry dressing on any cuts or blisters. And ask a partner or friend to massage your feet."
"If you have any cracks, don't use a disinfectant as this may cause excessive dryness and bleaching of the skin."
So to keep your feet comfortable and healthy, make sure you pay a little more attention to them this winter!