Common Foot Problems
Blisters are small pockets of fluid that form in the upper layers of skin after they have been damaged. They develop to protect the tissue beneath.
Blisters can form anywhere on the body, but usually occur on the hands and feet. Common causes of blisters include wearing ill-fitting shoes, contact with chemicals, heat (such as sunburn or a scald) and medical conditions like chickenpox.
Most blisters heal naturally after three to seven days and do not require medical attention. Do not burst a blister as this could lead to infection or slow down the healing process. See your GP if you have blisters that you think are infected, are very painful, or keep coming back.
Most people’s feet have arches, where the inner part of the sole of the foot is raised off the ground when standing. If you have flat feet, or “fallen arches”, your feet have low or no arches and press almost completely flat against the ground. Flat feet can run in families, but can also be caused by arthritis or an injury, such as a ruptured tendon. Some people with flat feet may not have any problems, but others may experience pain in the feet, ankles, lower legs, knees, hips, or lower back.
Wearing well-fitting shoes or insoles (orthotics) that support the arch of the foot can relieve discomfort. Stretching the muscles and connective tissues in your lower legs can also help.
A bunion is a bony deformity at the base of the big toe, which often causes the big toe to point inwards, towards the other toes. A bunion develops when the small bones in the toes (phalanges) move out of line with the longer bones that run through the foot towards the ankle (metatarsals).
Anyone can develop bunions, although they’re more common in women. The progression of a bunion may be slowed by wearing wider-fitting shoes or using insoles (orthotics) and bunion pads. Pain can be treated with painkillers. The only permanent solution is surgery, which may be recommended if your symptoms are severe and don’t respond to non-surgical treatments.
An ingrown toenail is a painful condition where the toenail grows into the skin at the side of the toe. The big toe is most commonly affected, but an ingrown toenail can develop on any toe.
Ingrown toenails can be caused by tight or ill-fitting shoes, cutting your toenails at an angle (they should be cut straight across) and fungal nail infections.
If you have an ingrown toenail, your toe will be red, swollen and warm to touch. As it becomes more advanced, white or yellow pus may appear. Treatment will depend on how severe the problem is. In severe cases, part – or all – of the toenail may need to be removed.
Corns and calluses are areas of hard, thickened skin that develop as a result of excessive pressure or friction.
Corns are small circles of thick skin that often develop on the tops and sides of toes or on the sole of the foot. Calluses are larger, less well-defined, rough areas of skin that are often yellowish in colour. They often develop on the parts of the foot that take the most weight, such as the ball of the foot.
If they cause discomfort, corns and calluses can be treated by a podiatrist, who can cut away the thickened skin. Wearing comfortable shoes that fit properly may also help.
Verrucas are warts that often develop on the sole of the foot, usually on non-weight bearing areas. They are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and range in size from approximately 1mm to 10mm. They can appear in pairs or groups and are flat, rough areas of skin, sometimes with a cluster of black dots at their centre.
Verrucas aren’t considered to be very contagious, but they can be passed on to others by skin-to-skin contact. The infection can also be transmitted indirectly through contact with contaminated objects or surfaces, such as the rough, wet areas surrounding swimming pools and in changing rooms.
Verrucas are not usually painful and will often disappear without treatment within a year. Salicylic acid can speed up the process
Fungal nail infections develop more often on toenails than fingernails. They can look unsightly, but are not serious and rarely painful.
A fungal infection can look ugly because the nail often becomes thickened and distorted, and can turn white, black, yellow or green. The nail can sometimes become brittle, with pieces of nail breaking off or even coming away from the toe completely.
Underneath and around the nail (the nail bed), the skin can sometimes become inflamed and painful. A fungal nail infection is not serious, but it will not clear up without treatment with antifungal medicine.
To prevent fungal nail infections, keep your hands and feet clean and dry and your nails short, and wear clean socks and shoes that fit properly. Also treat athlete’s foot immediately to stop the infection spreading to your nails.
Athlete’s foot is a fungal skin infection that develops between the toes, where it is often warm and damp. Anyone can get athlete’s foot, and it is easily spread from person to person in environments such as swimming pools or changing rooms.
Athlete’s foot tends to start between the little toes, and begins with an itchy rash that can spread if left untreated. The rash can cause the skin to become dry, red, scaly and flaky. Other symptoms can include soreness, itchiness and blistering.
Athlete’s foot is not a serious condition and can be treated with antifungal creams, sprays, liquids and powders. Keeping your toes clean and dry will help prevent it recurring.
Chilblains are small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures. They often appear on your extremities – such as your nose, earlobes, fingers and toes – which tend to be more vulnerable to the cold. Keeping these areas covered in cold weather can help prevent chilblains.
Chilblains typically cause a burning or itching sensation. The affected skin may swell and turn red or dark blue. In severe cases, the surface of the skin may break and sores or blisters can develop. It’s important not to scratch the skin because it can break easily and become infected.
Chilblains will often heal within a few weeks, and medical advice is not usually needed. However, see your GP if you have severe chilblains, they recur, or they do not heal within a few weeks. Also seek medical advice if there are signs of infection, such as swelling and pus, swollen glands, and you have a high temperature and feel generally unwell.
Gout is a type of arthritis that causes painful swelling in the joints. It is caused by a build-up of uric acid in the blood. The body usually gets rid of uric when urine is passed out of the body. But if it builds up, crystals can form and collect in a joint, causing inflammation, swelling and pain.
The base of the toe is the most common joint to be affected by gout. The pain can be severe, particularly when walking. The affected joint will usually swell, and the surrounding skin may look red and inflamed.
Gout can be treated using a number of different types of medication. The risk of further attacks can be reduced by making lifestyle changes, such as changes to your diet, reducing how much alcohol you drink, drinking plenty of water, and taking regular exercise.
Hammer toe is a deformity of the smaller toes – usually the second, third or fourth toe – where the toe appears bent at the joint. There are a number of causes of hammer toe. Ill-fitting shoes are a common culprit. Injury, bunions or rheumatoid arthritis are other possible causes.
Hammer toe can also cause other problems. Because the toe joint sticks out, it is more susceptible to shoes rubbing, which can lead to corns and calluses developing. Hammer toes can also cause stress on the ball of the foot, resulting in pain known as metatarsalgia.
People with diabetes can develop foot problems, particularly if their diabetes is poorly controlled or they have had diabetes for many years. It can lead to nerve damage in the feet and legs called neuropathy.
This means people with diabetes are more likely to get foot ulcers because their ability to feel pain in their feet is reduced. The slightest injury, such as blisters or cuts, can develop into an ulcer. Foot ulcers can be treated successfully if caught early, but the consequences can be serious if left untreated.