Take steps to protect your feet from summer hazards, heat

With summer comes flip flops and bare feet. Know how to protect them from the elements.

(MCT) -- Even after nine summers in Dallas, podiatrist Dr. Matthew Babich has yet to adjust to so many bare feet.

"Any time of day," he says, "I see someone walking with their shoes off. I shake my head at it.

"When I first moved here, a neighbor mowed his lawn barefoot. C'mon, really? It's not that a shoe will save a foot if it goes under a mower, but not to have anything on it blew my mind."

Summer is a harsh season on feet. Bared toes mean stubbing opportunities abound, to say nothing of pebbles, ants, sun, griddle-hot sidewalks. And those are just the natural villains. Other problems are self-inflicted.

Which is why Babich and fellow experts say summer is a prime season to take a stand in the name of foot health. With a little care, most summer foot problems can be stamped out, they say.

Start with being careful about what you wear.

"Improperly fitting shoes, flip-flops, sandals - obviously there's a risk to all that because your toes are exposed," Babich says. "On a Friday or Saturday night in Uptown, you see those Egyptian-style sandals. You see the wedges. Let's add alcohol and no support. You're asking for a big problem."

When summer ends, podiatrist Dr. Allan Sherman sees an abundance of arch and heel strains. The cause: flip-flops and other shoes with little to no support.

But in the heat, closed shoes are not necessarily a cure-all. Dustin Stein, women's soccer coach at Eastfield College, remembers his team playing on turf in Louisiana one summer. Their cleats melted.

"Obviously if it's melting," says Stein, an athletic trainer, "you're baking your feet inside your shoes."

Thus, Sherman's description of summer feet. They are, he says, "almost a petri dish."

"One of the most common things we see over summer is that people are not changing to a drier shoe, a drier sock," says Sherman, a runner who hasn't missed a day in almost five years. "If feet stay moist, that can lead to fungal infections."

If you're somewhere where fungus hangs out - a public pool, for instance - and don't wear shoes, a crack in the skin could be a magnet for the stuff.

-Diabetic problems

Summer foot problems are magnified for diabetics, who often suffer from neuropathy, or numbness, in their feet.

"I tell them not to go outside barefoot," Babich says. "One patient went out to get the mail on a 112-degree day on hot asphalt. They walk out slowly, stand at the mailbox, walk on back. They might as well have walked on an iron."

Some diabetics know what to do, he says; others haven't a clue. "I've pulled out of red, swollen feet a gold clasp from a necklace. That's on top of needles, staples, wood, glass."

A blister between the toes of a healthy person tends to heal; not necessarily so for a diabetic, he says. He's had some tell him, "I can't believe I got a blister from flip-flops and am now in the hospital on IV antibiotics."

-General advice

For all those problems, there are solutions. Our experts say you should:

-Wear sunblock. Put it on the tops of feet as well as bottoms, which are exposed when you sit in a lounge chair, Sherman says.

-Limit time in flip-flops. You need them by the pool and in public showers, Sherman says, because you can pick up plantar-wart virus by walking barefoot around the pool. Plus, who knows what bacteria the showers hold? But "on the town for the night?" Babich asks. "No."

-Wear wicking socks when exercising outdoors. Unlike cotton, Sherman says, wicking socks "take moisture away from skin and help our skin breathe easier. They allow better health, a better environment."

-Remove athletic shoes and socks after working out. Take out the shoe's removable liner; otherwise, Sherman says, the shoe will stay wet between it and the sole. Put the liner outside to dry. "Make sure you open up the shoes really well. Crumple newspaper into the shoe, which will help absorb moisture and keep the shoes spread."

-Stretch your feet to prevent strains. Roll a ball around your arch to stretch your muscles, Sherman says. Also, sit down, bring the soles of your feet together and intertwine your toes.

-Pay attention if your foot hurts. Anything that happens to your feet affects the rest of your body, Stein says. "If one is injured, you'll overcompensate. You'll put more pressure on the opposite foot, which can cause a break or stress injury in the leg, knee, hip."

-Employ basic hygiene. "Some of the football players and soccer plays have the most disgusting feet," Stein says. "Make sure you're washing your feet. Don't let your toenails grow out."

-Be careful about pedicures. People without medical issues are at risk for ingrown toenails and infection, Babich says. "Put that with someone who is compromised from circulation or immune system problems and the likelihood of increased risk during a pedicure goes up."

-The mindful pedicure

Marcia Lopez, a lead nail technician at Cooper Spa Dallas, says she not only wants feet to be pretty: Her goal is to keep them healthy, too. Which is why she pays careful attention to her workspace.

"You're scrubbing the feet. You're scrubbing skin," she says. "Bacteria is always on the skin. If everything isn't cleansed properly after each client, you can cross-contaminate."

Adds Lopez, who has worked at Cooper for seven years: "You don't want to get a pedicure where it could cost your life."

To that end, she offers tips on making sure that painted toenails and smooth heels are all you're bring home from a pedicure.

-Observe how equipment is cleaned. Make sure the salon's foot tubs are cleaned and sanitized after each use, she says.

-Observe whether files are clean before they touch your feet. "We like to use disposable files, but not everyone does," Lopez says. "If it has nail polish on it, you should not let the technician use it on you."

-Double-check orangewood sticks. Because these cuticle-pushing sticks are porous and hold bacteria, only one per client should be used, she says. Again, "if you see red or pink nail polish on it, ask for a brand-new stick and don't let the technician touch you with that dirty stick."

-Ask questions. The salon "should pull everything apart after each client, clean it and start over again." A lot don't want to take the time to follow daily and weekly sanitizing steps, she says. "But you're saving somebody's life if you take the time to do that."

-Tell the technician your health issues. If you're diabetic or have thin skin, don't let the technician use a metal file, she says. Remember that a technician cannot remove an ingrown toenail or give a pedicure to someone with athlete's foot or another fungus. A good one will notice if your ankles are swollen, and might suggest you follow up with your physician.

-Be wary of how the nails are cut or filed. "When you cut the sides of the nail, they grow back into the skin when they're growing out and that leads to ingrown toenails," she says. "You can file the corners, but you don't want to cut into them."