I’ve waxed poetic about my love for foot-damaging flip-flops, but now that the weather has turned, it’s time for my other favorite shoe — the shearling-lined boot. Yup, socks be damned: I wiggle bare feet into the oh-so-soft shearling that keeps them toasty and comfy whether at home (worn like slippers) or outside in freezing temperatures.
Unfortunately, sometimes those joyful feelings of being cozied up in a boot can be short-lived; I’ve had sweaty smells and the remnants of a fungus living on my nails that makes me question my shearling boot love. It’s enough to put me into socks for a leather or rubber boot, but with that snugger fit, there are still concerns to worry about.
“You definitely see more foot issues in winter,” explains Emily Splichal, DPM, an NYC podiatrist and Human Movement Specialist. “Your feet are more susceptible to swollen toes, foot sweat and odor, and fungus from bacteria because of the confinement from socks and closed toe shoes.” Still, you can help prevent winter feet problems by prepping before the freezing temperatures set in. Here are the concerns to know about — and how to treat them — before your feet go into hibernation.
Cramped Toes, a.k.a. Skier’s Toe
Curled, cramped toes happen when shoes are too tight. In winter, the culprit is usually a boot with a sock. “There’s only so much real estate in a shoe,” points out Dr. Splichal. “When you add in a sock and even a [high] heel, it’s tighter, and puts extra pressure on the toes as the body weight goes to the front of the foot.” What can happen is a condition named skier’s toe (so named because ski boots often pull the foot forward and injure the toes).
If the toe is repeatedly slamming against the top or end of the shoe, it can show up as a subungual hematoma, or bleeding under the nail with inflammation around it. Furthermore, the nail can fall off, turn black, or thicken from the trauma, and can cause a lot of uncomfortable pain. “Usually, if the nail isn’t bothering you, you can soak it in Epsom salt and leave it alone to dry up,” says Dr. Splichal. “But if it’s at all painful, see a doctor, who will drain the blood from the nail to relieve the pressure.”
Prevention of skier’s toe starts at the shoe store: Look for boots that have a wider toe box, meaning you should search for shoes that have a more rounded (rather than narrow or pointed) shape at the front. When you’re trying on your options, do so wearing the sock that you’d likely wear with the boot at home to get a sense of your comfort level. Dr. Splichal recommends a thin merino wool sock, like those from Smartwool®, because this specific fabric keeps your feet warm, wicks away sweat, and naturally lets your feet breathe. For extra insurance against skier’s toe, you should also consider going a half-size up with any boot — the extra toe room will accommodate thicker socks.
For boots you already own, use shoe-shapers, like ForméTM; ($49), to extend the toe box up to half a size. This particular pair of shapers features wings that open into the front of the shoe, which can help relieve cramped toes in any kind of shoe shape (even pointed ones).
Being stuck inside a lined boot all day is a recipe for stinky, sweaty feet, thanks to the non-breathable environment, says Dr. Splichal. Though my favorite shearling-lined boots can make my feet sweat, rubber and water-resistant leather shoes can also exacerbate this issue because the heavy materials trap moisture inside.
Your best bet for sweat management is, again, careful sock selection. An absorbent material like merino wool wicks away moisture to help quash odor, prevent fungal infections, and ward off blisters. The worst type of sock fabric to wear in a boot? Cotton. It holds onto moisture more than most materials and traps sweat inside; plus, when cotton gets wet, it loses its insulation value, and your feet will feel cold fast.
If foot sweat is still a concern (especially if you’re like me, and are wearing lined boots sans socks), try prepping your feet with an absorbent powder before you put them into boots to keep them dry and odor-free. Dr. Splichal likes Arm & Hammer® No White Mess Invisible Foot Powder Spray ($7), because it’s activated when your feet start to sweat; the baking soda in it absorbs like a powder and neutralizes odor without a residue. Spray it on after towel-drying your feet to get the full benefits of the formula, and be sure to get in between your toes, where moisture collects.
Perhaps the nastiest foot issue I’ve had from a closed-toe boot is a minor bout of fungus. “Fungus won’t just appear — you have to be introduced to it,” explains Dr. Splichal. “It attaches to your skin when you’re barefoot in places like gym showers, at pools, and even hotel carpets.”
You’ll usually see it start between your toes, where moisture lurks, and it shows up as a red rash with a funky odor. On the rest of the foot, it appears as scaly patches that can be mistaken at first for dry, flaky skin, but if left untreated, they will spread. On nails, it appears as white spots, and can eventually turn the whole nail yellow.
While you can have fungus any time of year, it’s worse in colder months: When you slip into a boot, the fungal organism thrives because it likes a dark, warm environment. To treat it, try an anti-fungal treatment like Lamisil AT® Cream ($14), which should clear it up (it worked for me!). For more severe cases, you should see a doctor, who’ll prescribe a stronger anti-fungal ointment.
The most obvious way to avoid fungus is to wear a flip-flop in lieu of bare feet in the locker room (yes, even in the shower). You should also thoroughly dry your feet after showering — or even after you change out of socks — to help stave off any fungus. If you’re slipping bare feet right into a sheepskin lined boot, be warned: The fungus can get inside the material and will stay there, so every time you put on the boot, you’re at risk of getting the infection. Get your boots professionally cleaned at least once a season, suggests Dr. Splichal. If your infection is not clearing, it’s time to invest in a new pair.
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