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Five Simple Steps to Banish Foot Odor

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Several pairs of bare feet in the grass

When you kick off your shoes and socks at the end of the day, are you and those around you assaulted by a strong, unpleasant smell? You’re not alone. Medically known as bromodosis, smelly feet are a very common problem that affects millions of people. University Hospitals foot care expert, Jessica Milliman, DPM discusses the causes of excessive foot odor and what you can do about it.

What Causes Foot Odor?

The simple answer is sweat, bacteria and, sometimes, fungi. Feet have more sweat glands per square inch than any other part of the body; therefore, they are especially sweaty. “Inside socks and shoes, the warm, wet environment created by sweaty feet is ideal for bacteria – tiny organisms that feed on the sweat, oils and dead skin cells on your feet. As they eat and multiply, they create and release chemicals that produce a smelly odor,” says Dr. Milliman.

Fungi can also thrive in the moist environment inside your shoes and socks. Commonly known as athlete’s foot, fungal infections can cause a bad smell along with intense itching and burning sensations.

Why Some Feet Are Smellier Than Others

All feet sweat and therefore have the potential to smell bad. However, some people are more likely to have excessive foot odor. This can be for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Presence of certain types of bacteria. Approximately 10-15 percent of people have a unique body chemistry that provides an ideal environment for the growth of specific bacteria that release sulfuric compounds, which smell like rotten eggs.
  • Hormonal changes. Women and teenagers often sweat more due to hormonal changes in their bodies during puberty, menopause and pregnancy.
  • Hyperhidrosis. A medical condition that causes excessive sweating.
  • Certain medications. Some over-the-counter and prescription medicines can have excessive sweating as a potential side effect. Examples include antidepressants, diabetes medications, steroids like prednisone and some NSAIDs like ibuprofen. You should always talk to your doctor before making any changes to your medications.

Another possible reason for smelly feet is diet. Certain foods contain sulfur compounds that are excreted through sweat, resulting in a rotten egg smell. Examples include onions, garlic, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and eggs.

Five Easy Ways to Clear the Air

The good news is there are some simple, at-home steps you can take to control foot odor. The trick is to be diligent and make foot care a regular part of your daily routine.

  1. Practice good foot hygiene. Wash your feet every day using an antibacterial soap and dry thoroughly, paying particular attention to the areas between the toes. Use a pumice stone or foot file to remove any hard, dead skin and trim toenails straight across.
  2. Try over-the-counter remedies. Antibacterial and antifungal foot powders, sprays and creams can help keep feet dry and help prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus - both of which can cause foot odor. Disinfectant Lysol aerosol spray can also help - spray the inside of shoes and let them dry fully before wearing them again.
  3. Choose your footwear carefully. Select shoes that are made of natural, breathable fabrics like cotton or leather and wear socks made from natural fibers that absorb moisture. Change your socks two or three times daily and alternate the shoes you wear, allowing each pair to dry thoroughly between uses. Ensure your shoes are well-fitted and not too tight.
  4. Go barefoot. When possible and safe, leave your feet bare when indoors. One notable exception is public places like swimming pools and communal showers – these are breeding grounds for bacteria and fungi. Always wear flip flops or shower shoes when using facilities such as these.
  5. Try a soothing foot bath. For a deep clean, soak your feet for up to 20 minutes once a week. You can make your own solution by adding half a cup of Epsom salts to warm water or by mixing two parts of warm water with one part vinegar. Do not soak your feet if you have any open sores.

When to Consult Your Doctor

Even though smelly feet aren’t a serious health condition, for some people the problem can be severe enough to negatively affect their quality of life. If home treatments aren’t enough to manage your foot odor, talk to your primary care doctor or a podiatrist. Treatments may include prescription strength anti-fungal or anti-bacterial medications. If hyperhidrosis (excess sweating) is diagnosed, other medical treatments may be recommended.

Related Links:

University Hospitals has a wide network of foot and ankle specialists at convenient locations throughout the region. Our experts have the advanced training and experience to treat a wide range of podiatric problems, including bromodosis.

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