Water blisters on the toes can be annoying and uncomfortable. And you’ve almost certainly experienced one, if not many, in your lifetime.
Unlike blood blisters, water blisters appear as a clear, pocket of water. The clear fluid in a water blister is actually “serum” — a component of the blood that is separated from the blood cell and the clotting particle.
When the damaged upper layer of skin, known as the epidermis, tears away from the layers beneath it, the serum collects in the space remaining. And you will find yourself with a blister.
Blisters rarely need medical attention, unless they become infected, but the feet are particularly prone to blisters.1
What Causes Water Blisters to Form on the Toes?
Water blisters can occur from various factors. Most are harmless, but it’s good to be aware of those that may require further attention.
Friction is the most common cause of water blisters on the toes. Wearing tight, loose shoes or brand new shoes, which cram your toes together too tightly, will cause blisters on the toes. If you have clawed or hammer toes, you’re also more likely to get blisters as these conditions make the toe joints sit higher, often rubbing against the tops of your shoes.2
Water blisters form more easily on moist skin.3 Excessive sweating of the feet in hot weather can cause an over-softening of the skin’s protective layers and increase your chances of toe blisters. If socks become too damp, change them or try applying lubricants or drying substances (such as petroleum jelly or even anti-perspirant sprays) to help minimize moisture.4
Contact dermatitis of the feet can be triggered by the materials that make up your shoes and can cause blisters to form on the toes. Many products and chemicals are used in the manufacture of footwear and allergic reactions may occur due to substances found in the materials (rubber is a common allergen) or from the dyes or glues used on the shoe. Dimethyl fumarate (DMF) is a particularly strong allergen and is still found in some sachets that come in shoe boxes to prevent moisture, and mold, from reaching your shoes. Metal buckles or decorations (especially those made from nickel) can also be a common allergen.5
Dyshidrotic eczema (also known as Pompholyx) is a condition in which tiny water blisters appear on the palms, soles and toes. The cause is unknown, but evidence suggests that it can relate to high levels of stress, fungal skin infections, sweating and allergies. You are more likely to experience dyshidrotic eczema if your hands and feet are often moist and it does occur more commonly in the warmer months of spring and summer. If your feet are exposed to certain metal salts such as nickel, or household chemicals or detergents you are also at a higher risk.6
Certain medical conditions may also lend themselves to blisters on the toes and body. These include chicken pox, shingles, impetigo, and scabies. These all require a visit to your doctor for further treatment.
How to Treat Water Blisters on the Toes
Water blisters ultimately heal by themselves, however, it’s important to take care of the blister. You’ve probably been told to never pop a blister. Why? Because of the high risk of infection. The unbroken skin over a blister (the “roof”) provides a natural barrier to bacteria. If your blister does become infected, you should never ignore it. An infected blister could lead to a bacterial infection of the skin or serious complications such as sepsis (blood poisoning).7
Cover intact blisters
The best way to protect the “roof” of the blister and enable it to heal without risk of infection is to cover the blister with an adhesive strip like a Band Aid. Painful blisters should be cushioned with a soft dressing. A donut shape that fits around the blister rather than on top may prove better for painful blisters to avoid placing further pressure on it.8 If a blister is left unbroken, the body will gradually absorb the fluid within about a week, as the underlying layers of skin naturally heal.9
Treat broken blisters
A very large and painful blister may need to be drained. This should be done with a needle that has been heated over a flame to sterilize it and without removing the “roof” – the protective covering of the blister. Your blister may also have broken by itself. Likewise, do not peel off the “roof” if it still remains. In both cases a proper process of care is needed to protect against infection.
You can begin this process by carefully washing the blister with mild soap and water. Apply an antibiotic ointment and then cover with a dry, sterile dressing to protect it from infection. You should avoid wearing the shoes that caused the blister until the blister heals. Always wash your hands before touching a broken blister and dressings should be changed at least daily.10 11
Prevention of Water Blisters on the Toes
Wear properly fitting shoes. If your shoes are brand new, tape a Band Aid or similar plaster over the area where you feel friction until you “wear in” the shoes.
Protect your feet from too much moisture by wearing moisture-wicking socks or by changing your socks twice daily — if you have sweaty feet.
Apply an antiperspirant or other drying product, like talc powder, on and between your toes to reduce sweating, especially during sports and long hikes.
Pay attention to any chemicals or products that you regularly use near your feet if you’re continually getting blisters. You may be experiencing an allergic reaction to a particular component of your shoe and perhaps even lotions or creams.
Here’s the Rub
You should always seek medical assistance if your blister is caused by a bad burn, if you develop multiple blisters in one area or if you’re blister appears to be infected.
But here’s the good news if you do have a water blister, they are usually harmless and quickly heal on their own.