What's not to love about spring and summer? Warm weather, lots of sun, bare feet, and… foot fungus? Depending on the kind of shoes you wear, you could find yourself with a nasty, soil-borne fungal infection that could leave your feet in an unappealing—and painful—state. Researchers in India found that people who work in soil, such as gardeners, and wear plastic-foam shoes are more susceptible to nasty toenail infections.
In the Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, researchers warned of onychomycosis in gardeners, a fungal condition characterized by discolored, thickened, and splitting nails.
The fungus causing the unsightly ailment thrives in the damp, warm conditions created when you wear those convenient, slip-on, plastic-foam clogs with no socks.
The fungal infection problem most often stems from wearing knock-off versions of Crocs, name-brand plastic footwear made of a patented Croclite plastic that wicks water away from skin, says New York City podiatric surgeon Hillary Brenner, DPM, spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association. "In Croc-like shoes, the plastic is not a breathable material, therefore locking moisture into the shoe," explains Dr. Brenner.
The fungal infection targets both fingernails and toenails, and aside from the unsightly discoloration, splitting, scaly skin, and foul foot odor, fungal foot infections can also cause nail-bed pressure, irritation, and pain. Bacteria and protozoa in the soil can also cause skin infections that are more likely to proliferate in shoes that create a moist environment around bare skin or someone wearing nylons or tights.
Here's how to avoid nail fungal infections this summer:
• Seek socks. Whether you're wearing Crocs, Croc knock-offs, or another type of shoe, wear cotton socks to deter fungal infections from setting in. "The cotton socks will wick the sweat off your feet—plus, cover up any cuts you may have on your feet," says Dr. Brenner.
• Practice good hygiene. If you're gardening, wear gloves. If that's not your thing, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after working the earth. If you have any open wounds, make sure they are well bandaged.
• Soak it up. Dr. Brenner suggests soaking your feet in an Epsom salt solution before and after gardening or other barefoot outdoor activities to help prevent fungal infections. Mix 1 cup of Epsom salt in 1 gallon of lukewarm water and soak for 10 to 15 minutes.
• Find better shoes. Shoes with open holes aren't good choices for people doing summer garden or lawn work, or anyone out on a rainy, muddy day. Look for shoes with a closed back and without holes. This will keep mud out of your shoe and prevent the moist environment where fungus thrives. If you're hooked on the Crocs brand, Dr. Brenner recommends wearing Neira Work or Crocband Jaunt Boot in the garden, not the colorful, open versions. "The goal is to keep feet dry," she says.
• Know when you need treatment. If your feet are looking funky and you think you have a fungal infection, you can try these natural treatments:
1. Use the Epsom salt soak mentioned above.
2. Apply a few drops of tea tree oil to the nails.
3. Boil six black tea bags, let the water cool off, and then soak your feet in the solution for 10 to 15 minutes. "The tannin in the tea helps dry out the feet," explains Dr. Brenner.
If these tactics don't work, see a podiatrist. These foot specialists can take a culture to narrow down the specific organism that's causing the problem. Based on the test results, the doctor may prescribe an antifungal gel (not creams, they add too much moisture), laser treatments, or a topical nail lacquer.