Trench foot doesn’t just sound like a nasty condition, it is a nasty condition.
Its origins date back all the way to the early 19th century, but it is more closely identified with World War I and trench warfare. Also known as “immersion foot,” trench foot is an extremely serious problem that can lead to the development of gangrene – and the possible need for amputation, if not treated quickly enough. The good news is…. It’s a pretty rare condition in our modern times, but it doesn’t hurt to be informed about it.
What Causes Trench Foot?
Approximately 20,000 British soldiers developed trench foot during the First World War, and many of them either lost limbs or died because of it.1 The reason the problem was so prevalent is that soldiers had to stand for hours in cold, wet trenches and never had the chance to change their shoes or socks.
Once the British Army realized the magnitude of the problem, soldiers were ordered to have multiple pairs of socks and switch them out during the day. They were also given whale oil grease to provide a barrier between the moisture and their feet.
In a nutshell, there are a lot of factors that can contribute to trench foot.
People who are exposed to cold, damp conditions for a prolonged period of time are at the highest risk.
The reason is that the blood vessels in the foot try to keep warm by constricting, which, in turn, reduces the amount of blood flow. This leads to a domino effect – first, the amount of oxygen getting to the foot is reduced, then the number of nutrients getting to the area. This results in severe damage to the nerves and tissues.
But you don’t have to be in extremely cold conditions in order to develop trench foot. People can get it at temperatures as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit – they can even develop the condition indoors.2
And anyone who is exposed to a wet environment for a long period of time, such as wearing damp shoes and socks or sweating a great deal, can be at risk.
How Long Does It Take To Develop Trench Foot?
Believe it or not, trench foot can develop in as little as a day.
Hikers, campers and others who tend to be on their feet in damp environments are susceptible. If you are in an occupation where you need to stand still for a long period of time, this can result in a lack of blood circulation. People who don’t practice proper foot hygiene can also develop trench foot.
The entire foot can be affected by this condition, but it typically attacks the toes and heels. It’s usually characterized by:
- A change in color to grey or white
- A great deal of swelling
- Heaviness in the foot
- Blisters, which usually form and then burst, leading to the death of skin and tissue that eventually peel off.
If the condition isn’t properly treated, symptoms will gradually worsen as the blood vessels constrict and cut off oxygen to the affected area. Damage to the nerves and tissues will soon occur, as will swelling as well as a “pins and needles” sensation. Ulcers might also eventually start to form and then gangrene will develop.
Again, prompt treatment is required to reduce the chances of severe damage taking place.
First, the feet must be thoroughly cleaned and dried. You might need to use antifungal and antibacterial dressings to make sure your feet are sanitary. The feet also need to be warmed as quickly as possible by either soaking them in warm water or using a heat pack.
If you notice a green or black discoloration of your feet, you need to seek immediate medical attention because that means that tissue is dying. A doctor will need to provide you with antibiotics in order to reduce the chances that an infection will set in. If your symptoms are accompanied by any sort of wound, that will only increase the risk of an infection.
While the potential complications of trench foot can be extremely severe, the chances are good that you can avoid major problems by treating the problem as quickly as possible.
Preventing Trench Foot
Of course, practicing the proper foot hygiene is obviously important for many reasons besides helping to avoid trench foot. But this is particularly critical if you find yourself in cold, damp environments on a regular basis or you have a job where you tend to stand on your feet all day. If you are showing the signs of trench foot, fast action will be key.
- First, clean and dry your feet thoroughly and elevate them to help get blood flow to the area.
- Wipe the inside of your shoes or boots and set them outside to dry.
- If your feet tend to sweat, bring several pairs of socks and change them out during the day.
- If you’re going to be outside for a long time in damp conditions, wear waterproof boots and stay away from materials such as vinyl or rubber.
- Wash and dry your feet on a daily basis, and use Vaseline or talcum powder to keep moisture to a minimum. If your feet sweat profusely, you should consider talking to a doctor.You may need to use aluminum chloride or another type of drying agent. Some people have found Botox useful for controlling their perspiration.3
- Make sure your shoes allow you to wiggle your feet and switch them out daily if possible.
The better your overall diet and exercise habits, the better prepared you will be if you do ever encounter a situation where trench foot might be a danger. But even if you do develop symptoms of the condition, there will be no need to panic.
If you take these symptoms seriously, take the right self-care steps and get to a doctor, the chances are very good that you won’t have to deal with any severe complications.
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