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Men's Health Line - Smelly Feet

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Smelly Feet
Introduction and Causes Prevention
Treatment Self-help

Introduction and Causes

Smelly Feet

Smelly feet (foot odour; bromhidrosis) can be very embarrassing and uncomfortable. There are many people, especially guys, who have to deal with this problem everyday. But once you understand the problem, you'll be able to take steps to tackle it.

What causes it?

Feet have a stronger odour than the rest of the body and for some of us smell badly, mainly because of two reasons:

  • Feet sweat a lot: feet have more sweat glands per inch of skin than any other part of the body, and these glands produce sweat profusely and all the time, not just when the weather is hot or during exercise as other parts of the body do. The sweat cannot evaporate due to the feet being trapped in shoes
  • Sweat promotes the growth of bacteria: the dark and moist condition of the feet being trapped in shoes is ideal for the growth of bacteria that normally live on our skin. The bacteria produce isovaleric acid, which is the main substance responsible for the bad odour of smelly feet
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How can I prevent it?

Since foot odour is caused by bacteria feeding on sweat collected on the feet, and producing smelly secretion, there are two main ways to reduce the bad smell. You can:

  • Decrease the amount of sweat that collects on your feet
  • Decrease the amount of bacteria on your feet

Most cases of smelly feet can be controlled by taking the following preventive steps:

  • Good foot hygiene
    Practising good foot hygiene to reduce the growth of bacteria is a good start:
    • Bathe and wash your feet at least once daily in lukewarm water with mild soap. For example, doing it when you take off your shoes once you get home is a good idea
    • Dry feet well after washing, especially between the toes
  • Reducing sweating and excess moisture
    • Dust your feet with talcum powder to help keep them dry
    • Apply antiperspirant on your feet to reduce sweating
    • Allow the skin on your feet to breathe by taking off shoes and socks, or wearing sandals as much as possible
    • Ensure shoes fit properly and rest your feet up as much as possible because excess stress on the feet can aggravate sweating
    • Keep your body cool, especially in hot weather, because high body temperature makes your whole body, including your feet, sweat more
  • Proper socks
    • Wear clean socks
    • Wear thick, soft socks, which are made of cotton, wool or other absorbent materials, to help absorb the sweat
    • Avoid the use of nylon socks
    • Always wear socks when wearing closed shoes
    • Never put dirty socks back on
    • Change socks as often as is needed to keep your feet dry
  • Proper footwear
    • Wear breathable shoes that are made of leather, canvas or other materials
    • Wear well-ventilated footwear such as slip-on, instead of very constrictive shoes such as boots
    • Avoid the use of plastic shoes
    • Coat the inside of your shoes with talcum powder to absorb any excess moisture
    • Wash shoes which are washable, such as those made of canvas, frequently and sun-dry them properly
    • It is best not to wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row - they need time to dry out
    • Leave your shoes in well-ventilated places to dry properly, such as airing your shoes outside, with the innersoles removed and under direct sunlight
    • If the odour in the shoes doesn't go away, even with the help of odour elimination products, discard the shoes
Do You Know...

Good foot hygiene, proper socks and shoes can solve your problem of smelly feet in most cases.

  • Other helpful tips
    • Check for any other foot problems. For example, if you have athlete's foot, which is caused by fungal infections, treat it immediately
    • A number of health conditions can also increase the chance for smelly feet, such as excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis), stress, thyroid problems, hormonal changes and the use of some drugs. Get them treated
    • Remember that these measures are mostly preventive and not curative, and if the problem persists despite all the preventive measures, get help from your doctor
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What is the treatment?

If the preventive measures above for foot odour do not help, then further investigations, and more aggressive and further management by a health professional may be indicated.

  • Stronger medications (e.g. aluminum chloride 20% solution) may be prescribed
  • Iontophoresis - a form of treatment, in which electric-current device passing a small electrical current through the skin can effectively diminish perspiration for several weeks, but which requires special equipment and trained personnel to administer
  • In the most severe cases, a surgeon can cut a nerve that controls the sweating
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How can I help myself?

Remember, in most cases, you can help yourself by adopting the right preventive measures:

  • Observe good foot hygiene
  • Apply talcum powder and antiperspirant on feet to keep them dry
  • Wear clean socks that absorb sweat well and change them frequently
  • Wear breathable or well-ventilated footwear and let them dry properly before putting them back on again
  • Get other health problems which may contribute to smelly feet treated by your doctor

If your problem does not improve despite the adoption of all the preventive measures, you should seek medical advice.

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