Taking care of your feet

Just as taking care of your teeth doesn’t start with the dentist-it begins at home, with brushing and flossing-foot care is our own responsibility.

It should be a daily regimen, especially as your feet undergo the natural changes associated with aging. A daily foot examination and routine of care is essential in maintaining proper foot health and preventing minor problems from becoming major problems. People with diabetes should take extra care to examine and care for their feet, and have regular checkups with a foot specialist at least every three months.

Caring for your feet
Depending on the season, your activity and footwear, your feet lose up to a half-pint of fluid every day. Obviously it’s important to change socks or hose daily (more, if your feet perspire heavily), and shoes should be allowed to air out thoroughly after wearing. This is especially important after strenuous physical activity, or during winter months, when your feet have been encased in boots and galoshes for hours on end.

Get into the habit of washing your feet every day. Dry them thoroughly, particularly between the toes, where moisture can linger, causing skin tcrack and be exposed to bacterial and fungal infections. Foot powder is a good way to keep feet fresh and dry after washing. An emollient moisturizer helps prevent moisture loss, replenish lost oils and ease the chafing most shoes inflict on over-dry skin.

You can take care of most calluses yourself, but if you have problems-really excessive buildup or cracking-it’s best to have a professional have a go. Soak your feet first in warm, soapy water to soften the tissue, then use a pumice stone to file then down. Don’t attempt to cut or clip calluses; you can very easily do more harm than good.

Toenails should be clipped regularly using a relatively straight cut (as against the rounded clipping you give your fingernails). Cutting the nails too short can lead to ingrown toenails. With age, toenails may become too hard to cut with ordinary clippers; they can also become ribbed and thickened because of fungal infections. In either case, they should be treated by a professional.

Athlete’s foot
Athlete’s foot isn’t a condition that only afflicts athletes; anyone can develop it. It’s not usually a serious condition, though, and it’s easily treatable with topical antifungal creams that are now available right off the pharmacist’s shelf-no prescription required.

Athlete’s foot is one of many kinds of fungi that thrive in the warm and humid areas of the body. It begins with itching, cracking and blistering of the web of skin between the toes; people often pick it up at gyms and swimming pools. In some cases, it may spread to the soles of the feet and sometimes the hands.

To reduce your risk of exposure, wear sandals if you’re showering or changing at a health club, and wash and dry feet thoroughly after activities that induce perspiration. A fungal infection can develop into a more serious problem, particularly in diabetics or people with other medical disorders. Open skin lesions increase the risk of bacterial infection, which can lead to cellulitis in the leg-a much graver condition. If you’re unsure about any change in your feet, don’t take chances: Consult a doctor or other qualified health professional.

At the same time, don’t feel you should see a doctor for what’s obviously a minor problem, unless you have diabetes. If you’re considering pads or plasters from the rack at your local pharmacy for a blister, callus or corn, you’re probably on pretty safe ground.

Take caution
The one caution, says Lynn Carter, director of the Foot Care Centre at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, “is medicated corn pads and callus removers. Sometimes they come with an acid in them, and that can be harmful. Things that are just padding and strapping are not going to harm you in any way. The same goes for off-the-shelf insoles: They probably don’t have enough of a correction or change of position in them to significantly harm you, and they might really improve the foot pain that you have.”

One last thing: women and shoes. Podiatrists say they see more women than men, partly, says Robert Chelin, president of the Ontario Podiatrists Association, because women tend to take better care of their health, but also because of their heels: “I tell the elderly especially that it’s important to vary the heel height of your shoes. Don’t just wear high heels. Try to wear a high heel one day, maybe a little pump the next day and a flat the next. If they don’t, they get shrinkage of their achilles tendon in the back of the leg, and as they get older they can’t put their heel flat to the ground. Then they’re stuck wearing high heels or Cuban heels.”

Since we also lose a little bit of balance and efficiency in our walking as we age, we’re more susceptible to falling and breaking our hips, so it’s important to be able to wear lower-heeled shoes.

Toe jam
“The other thing is,” Chelin notes, “taking a foot and squeezing it into a pointy shoe is like taking five cars and parking them in four spaces: You’re going to get a lot of bangs and scrapes. Same thing with the foot. Squeeze those toes into a tiny shoe and you’ll get rubbing, friction and irritation. Over time, your foot’s going to take on the shape of that shoe, and we-podiatrists-will end up seeing those deformities, irritations and changes.”

Basic foot care, Chelin stresses, “does not begin in the podiatrist’s office. It begins at home. It’s routine maintenance.” And, yes, it should be done daily-just like your teeth. “Look at the foot,” he says: “It sweats, it’s shoved into a little shoe, it’s got pressure on it, it’s getting tortured. By the age of 40, you’ve already walked several times around the world. Our feet are taking a beating, and you can’t replace them. You can always get a new set of teeth, but feet are forever. Treat them well, and they’ll treat you well. Treat them badly, and they’ll treat you badly.”