No pain, no gain?
Not when it comes to blisters. These little collections of fluid under the skin may seem harmless, but they’re anything but — they can even be downright debilitating if they’re on a part of the body you need to navigate the day (like your feet!).
Unfortunately, they’re often a part of life, so you’re wondering how to treat blisters on feet — at least until science finds a way to truly keep them from forming (please, oh please let this happen!). It’s a pipe dream, though, since blisters have a real purpose.
“Blisters are nature’s way of protecting you,” says Johanna Youner, M.D., a New York City-based podiatrist and spokesperson for the New York State Podiatric Medical Association. They happen when there’s friction and they can happen anywhere that there is too much rubbing, including your hands and feet. “Fluid collects in between layers of the skin and acts like a cushion.”
What Causes Blisters?
One of the biggest causes of blisters can be caused by shoes that are too loose, or by an ill-fitting shoe where there is “play” of the shoe causing rubbing on pressure areas, says Dr. Youner.
“I’ve seen some horrible, painful blisters from people who have bought shoes that were too large,” she says. “If the foot is intensely rubbing with repetitive motion and if the substance of the shoe is not natural (non-breathable) it will increase moisture and increase the chance of a blister.”
Excessive moisture and dryness can also be a big factor — that why you often feel the unmistakable feeling of a blister forming when you walk around with wet socks and shoes.
How to Stop Blisters From Forming
The easiest way to avoid getting blisters is to avoid the activities that cause them. That’s not too appealing though, given that so many of them are caused by running, walking, or other exercises that require you to be quick on your feet.
The next step? Learn how to treat blisters on your feet by preventing them with your running shoes. “Don’t look at the number,” says Dr. Youner. “Many people wear shoes that are too small.”
Your best bet is to get sized at a running specialty store that offers custom fitting. The experts measure your gait and other physiological aspects of your body and then recommend the best shoe for your unique situation.
Socks are often an afterthought, but they’re also important. “I’m a big fan of double-layer socks — sometimes called blister socks — that are available at most sports stores,” says Helen Newman, a runner and blogger based in Newcastle, United Kingdom.
Some runners even opt to wear knee-high pantyhose under a pair of socks to reduce the friction — the thought is that the friction that occurs between your skin and socks instead transfers to the two pairs of socks themselves, leaving your skin alone.
How to Treat Blisters on Feet
Sometimes blisters just happen, no matter how many precautions you take. When that happens, you should know how to treat blisters on feet — and know it takes a lot of TLC to help them heal.
“If you notice a ‘hot spot’ or pain, but a bandage on it immediately,” advises Dr. Younger. “It will act as a second skin and the skin will react to try and repair itself.” If you don’t have access to a bandage, put a layer between you and whatever is hurting you. A napkin or paper towel can help decrease the friction, she adds.
“If the blister is open, clean it with soap and water, apply Neosporin and a bandage,” she says, adding that liquid bandages are also a solid choice to cover the spots. “Adding powder helps, especially with 100% cornstarch. It will absorb moisture and will go a long way to keeping you safe.”
Should Blisters Be Popped?
Backpacker Steve Silberberg routinely pops blisters when he’s hiking with one of his Fitpacking tour groups. “I put on Neosporin (or similar anti-bacterial) [on a blister] and cover with a bandage,” he says.
“Then, in order to allow people to continue hiking, I cover the entire thing with duct tape.”
That’s an extreme way of dealing with them, but popping isn’t necessarily dangerous.
“It’s best to let nature take its course, but if it is hurting when you walk or run, then pop the blister,” Dr. Youner says. “Wash your hands, clean the skin and a needle with alcohol. Then puncture the blister carefully and push gently to let the blister fluid out.”
Apply Neosporin and cover with a bandage, she advises. “If you have the ability, soak in Epsom salt bath and reapply Neosporin to avoid infection.” And don’t rip the blistered skin off — it hurts and can increase your chances of infection, too.
David Newman, an ultra-marathon runner (up to 100 miles at a time!), opts for some serious protection for his well-worn feet.
“For my long races, I lather my feet in Vaseline and then cover blisters or places that often rub, with surgical tape,” he says. “That way there’s absolutely no chaffing.”
You probably don’t need to go that far, but keeping the pain at bay can mean the difference between finishing your workout or sitting on the sidelines.
Meagan Morris is the editor in chief of Celebribody. She's veteran health and wellness editor with over 15 years of experience. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Yahoo Health, Cosmopolitan, SELF, and Women's Health, among others. She spends most of her time writing, but her favorite part of the day is spent under a barbell doing squats.