What are The Causes and Treatment of Foot Infections

Types of Foot Infections: Their Causes and Treatments
Medically reviewed by Dr. Mavra Farrukh

What is Foot Infection?

Foot infections are typically caused by injuries or open wounds that infect a portion or the entire foot. Depending on which part of the foot is affected, foot infections may take different forms, such as bacterial, fungal, or viral. It is necessary to treat these infections as soon as possible, as they are characterized by telltale symptoms such as pain, inflammation, and pus.

Foot inflammation can also occur after an injury, even if no infection exists. Inflammatory conditions like arthritis, tendinitis, or bursitis may be mistaken for infections sometimes. Infections rarely cause swelling without other symptoms. Infection and inflammation require different treatments, so it is important to distinguish between them.

Causes and Transmission

All possible causes of foot infections are:

  • Bacteria
  • Fungi 
  • Viruses

A wound or injury on the foot can expose the foot to bacteria that can enter the body through the wound. In addition, the foot is very susceptible to bacteria that can easily infect even minor cuts.

Fungal infection

Fungal infections of the foot are a common cause of foot infections, especially among people who frequently walk barefoot in damp environments or wear tight-fitting shoes that promote moisture buildup. The most common fungal infection of the foot is athlete’s foot, caused by a group of fungi called dermatophytes.

Itching, burning, and skin scaling between the toes are the classic symptoms of an athlete’s foot, but the soles and sides of the feet can also be affected. The skin may peel or break in severe cases, causing secondary bacterial infections. The affected skin may also seem dry, red, or blistering.

Other fungal infections of the foot include toenail fungus, which can cause thickened, discoloured, or crumbly toenails, and ringworm, which can cause a circular rash on the skin of the foot.

Wounds

Wounds are a common cause of foot infections, as they can provide a portal of entry for bacteria, fungi, or other microorganisms to enter the body. Any break in the skin, such as cuts, scrapes, puncture wounds, or surgical incisions, can increase the risk of infection, especially if the wound is not properly cleaned and cared for.

In people with diabetes or peripheral vascular disease, foot wounds can be particularly concerning, as these conditions can impair the body’s ability to heal and fight infections. Sometimes, a slight injury can quickly become a severe infection, leading to tissue damage, cellulitis, or bone infection (osteomyelitis).

Diabetes

Diabetes is a common cause of foot infections due to some factors that can increase the risk of disease. Diabetes-related high blood sugar levels can harm the nerves and blood vessels in the foot, limiting sensation, worsening circulation, and impairing immunological response. This can make finding foot cuts or injuries more challenging and treat any infections that develop.

Additionally, people with diabetes are more likely to experience foot ulcers and slow-healing wounds that can develop an infection and result in serious side effects like gangrene or amputation. Foot ulcers are often caused by nerve damage, poor circulation, and pressure on the feet from ill-fitting shoes or foot deformities.

Ingrown Nails

When the toenail’s corners or edges protrude into the skin around them, it results in an ingrown toenail, which causes discomfort, swelling, and redness. Improper nail trimming, wearing shoes that are too tight, toenail damage, and having bent toenails are a few causes of ingrown toenails.

Ingrown toenails can become infected if not treated, resulting in more severe issues, including cellulitis, a skin infection, or even a bone infection. Increased pain, redness, swelling, warmth, or discharge from the affected area can all indicate infection.

Plantar Warts

Viral skin infection on the bottom of the foot results in plantar warts. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the virus that results in plantar warts. The virus can cause a rough, swollen, and occasionally painful lesion to develop on the foot by penetrating the skin through tiny cuts or abrasions.

Children and young people will likely get plantar warts, typically disseminated in warm, humid areas like public swimming pools or showers. Additionally, those with weakened immune systems or a history of plantar warts are more likely to be affected by the condition.

Infection after Surgery

Infections after surgery can occur when bacteria or other microorganisms enter the body through a surgical incision or a wound. In the case of foot surgery, the incision can become contaminated with bacteria from the skin or the environment, leading to infection.

Factors that increase the risk of infection after foot surgery include poor surgical technique, compromised immune system, poor blood circulation, and certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or peripheral artery disease.

Symptoms of infection after foot surgery may include redness, swelling, warmth, pain, and drainage from the incision site. In some cases, fever and chills may also be present.

Classification

Each part of the foot is affected differently by foot infections. Generally, soft tissue infections or bone infections fall into one of two categories:

  • Skin infections caused by bacteria are known as cellulitis
  • Skin infection caused by a fungus known as athlete’s foot
  • The accumulation of pus in a foot’s deeper tissues is called an abscess.
  • An infection of the joints is known as septic arthritis
  • An infection of a bursa is called septic bursitis.
  • An infection of the bones is called osteomyelitis.
  • Acute nail infections

Factors Contributing to Risk

An individual may be more likely to develop a foot infection if certain risk factors exist. Some of these are:

  • Existing Acute injury
  • Contaminated areas exposure
  • Underlying diseases 

The condition and its symptoms should not be aggravated by self-diagnosis.

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Signs and Symptoms

  • Redness
  • Fever
  • Pus
  • Pain and Swelling
  • Crusty yellowing
  • Warmth and Tenderness
  • Boils and Blisters
  • Skin sore or ulcer
  • Itching and Scaling

Infections can worsen if left untreated, especially if bacteria are involved, and may even spread throughout the body. Due to bacteria’s ability to spread easily, they can penetrate the deeper layers of soft tissue, bone, and even the blood, causing blood poisoning or septicemia. Gangrene, also known as tissue death, can also occur.

Following are some symptoms of a severe problem

  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Drowsiness

Skin infections can affect the feet, as well as any other part of the body. It is easy to treat certain conditions. Sometimes, a medical professional may be required to provide treatment and diagnosis.

Infections of the feet are often diagnosed as bacterial infections due to the presence of skin lesions and rashes. Other skin conditions may also cause these symptoms.

Types Of Foot Infections

Following are some commonly seen types of foot infections.

Fungal Foot infections

Typically, tinea pedis, athlete’s foot, and foot ringworm are considered fungal infections of the feet. It usually describes a skin infection of the feet or toes. People who have fungal infections in their nails are likely suffering from onychomycosis, sometimes referred to as tinea unguium. Foot infections are common and can easily be treated at home. The consequences can be severe if they are not appropriately treated. It is essential to avoid conditions where your feet may be exposed to moist, warm areas, such as spas or locker rooms. As fungi thrive in these conditions and are highly contagious, if your feet are not correctly cared for, you run the risk of contracting them.

Viral Foot Infection 

There are two main viruses that cause complications with your feet HPV and Coxsackie virus.  HPV (human papillomavirus) has over 100 strains, some of which cause plantar warts. Viruses like HPV enter the body through small skin breaks, such as cuts on the sole or toes of the foot, resulting in hard bumps on the ground. Black spots can appear on plantar warts, which are sometimes clumps or single dots. 

Getting rid of them can be difficult because they spread quickly from one place on your foot to another. Meanwhile, Coxsackievirus causes hand, foot, and mouth disease. Young children are mostly affected by this disease. The most common seasons are spring and fall.

Diabetic

Diabetes can cause impaired blood flow, nerve damage, and skin damage in the feet, increasing the risk of foot infection. Furthermore, diabetes may increase the risk of foot infections since it can reduce blood flow, which slows the healing process. It is always necessary to see a doctor if you have diabetic foot infections.

Post-Surgical Infection 

Infections in the feet can occur as a result of foot surgery complications, although they are rare. Healthy individuals are less likely to develop an infection after surgery due to the use of antibiotics prior to surgery. Smoking can also increase a person’s risk, as can diabetes or other immune system conditions.

Bacterial Foot Infections

When the skin is wounded or abraded, bacterial infections can occur almost immediately.

The spread of specific infections within the body can be just as rapid if they are left untreated. Infections caused by bacteria usually present as redness of the skin, inflammation, pain, and greenish or yellowish discharge or pus.

The toenails and the skin beneath them are the areas of the foot most susceptible to bacterial infections. Often, bacterial infections are caused by an ingrown toenail. The presence of conditions such as sunburn or eczema, which can lead to rashes and skin abrasions, can also cause bacterial infections.

Medications such as over-the-counter medications and antibiotics are available for treating bacterial infections of the feet. Some conditions are so severe that antibiotics are required to clear them completely. In extreme cases, antibiotics may be given directly through the IV or orally. The proper treatment is essential for the long-term health of your foot, regardless of the type of infection.

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Risk Factors 

Those who are ill, elderly, and have poor circulation have compromised immune systems. An immunosuppressive drug user or someone undergoing chemotherapy for cancer may have impaired immunity. Bacterial infections of the feet are also associated with poor blood circulation.

Let’s look at other skin conditions that can cause similar symptoms now that you understand how bacterial infections present on the feet. 

Eczema

Eczema is characterized by itchy, red patches on the skin. Affected areas can sometimes develop blisters. Most people who suffer from allergies are affected by this condition, which is not contagious.

In addition to cold compressions and topical steroids, antihistamines and topical steroids are commonly used to treat eczema.

Broken or cracked skin, along with bacterial infections, could lead to other complications that require immediate medical treatment.

Warts or Verruca Plantaris

Viral warts can either appear as a single lesion or as a cluster. Warts are usually circular and resemble calluses or corns in that they have a hardened surface but typically affect the side or soles of the feet. The presence of warts can be painful and uncomfortable, hiding other serious and underlying conditions like melanomas or carcinomas.

Athlete’s Foot 

Fungal infections like athlete’s feet are characterized by itchy, red rashes. Bad-smelling feet, blisters, cracks, and thick toenails are also symptoms of athlete’s foot, also referred to as tinea pedis. An itchy, blistering red rash is the hallmark of an acute athlete’s foot compared to a chronic athlete’s foot, which is characterized by a scaly rash. Foot skin between the toes and soles is most commonly affected by the condition.

Corns-Calluses

A corn or callus develops when the outer layer of the skin hardens and becomes thick. When shaved, corns over small blood vessels or nerves can bleed or cause pain.

The toes, heel area, or area under the ball of the foot are among the most susceptible spots for corns and calluses. Corns and calluses are often caused by shoes that fit poorly or are too tight.

Prevention 

The majority of foot infections are preventable by taking good care of them. Keeping the feet clean, which includes washing your feet, keeping your toenails trimmed, and wearing comfortable footwear, can help prevent a severe infection from developing.

  • Washing your feet daily with warm water and soap and thoroughly drying them—paying special attention to the area between your toes—are the best ways to avoid illnesses from dirt, sweat, and other bacteria. It’s important to dry between the toes since moisture might promote the development of fungi.
  • Wearing clean, dry socks and supportive shoes that fit well will help prevent rubbing or irritation that could lead to blisters or other injuries that could become infected. Selecting footwear that offers enough support and lets your feet breathe is crucial.
  • You can help stop transmitting infectious diseases like germs or fungi by not sharing items like socks, shoes, or towels with others.
  • Protect your feet from injury by wearing appropriate footwear for the activity, such as work boots, athletic shoes, or sandals. This can help to prevent cuts, puncture wounds, or other injuries that can become infected.
  • Regularly moisturize your feet to avoid dryness and cracking. Dry, cracked skin can create a gateway of entrance for bacteria and other microbes. A moisturizing cream or lotion can keep the skin soft and protected from breaking.
  • Inspect your feet regularly for signs of cuts, blisters, or other injuries, and treat them promptly to prevent infection. Early detection and treatment of injuries can help to prevent the disease from developing.
  • Maintain reasonable control of underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes or peripheral vascular disease, which increase the risk of foot infections: These conditions can impair circulation, sensation, or immune function, making it more challenging to prevent or heal infections.
  • Avoid going barefoot in public areas like swimming pools or locker rooms to lessen the possibility of coming into contact with dangerous bacteria. These locations frequently have warm, moist conditions perfect for developing and spreading germs. Sandals can act as a barrier between your feet and the earth.

Treatments for Foot Infections

The following are some common treatments that can be helpful in dealing with foot infections:

Self-care

A minor foot infection may disappear without treatment if it is not treated.

Viral infections or fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot, usually resolve on their own. However, it is best to consult a doctor if any symptoms are observed, as some severe infections require prompt treatment.

Antibiotics and antifungals

The first line of treatment for foot infections is antibiotics, antivirals, and antifungal ointments or oral medications. Early detection reduces the risk of severe complications and increases success rates. The duration of treatment is usually 7 to 10 days, but if the infection is more powerful, a more extended period may be required.

Surgical intervention

There are some cases of foot infections wherein medications may not work, such as when the infection has been left alone for some time and has already spread deep into the muscles and fibers under the skin. In such cases, the infected area will need to be cleaned surgically. Also, if there is an abscess, it needs to be drained first before it can be successfully treated.

  • Excision – This can be effective when the infection has not spread but wasn’t treated or disinfected in time. The infection spread and full amputation can be prevented by surgically removing all dead and infected skin and bone. An infected tissue area is removed, and pus is drained in less severe cases.
  • Amputation-When an infection becomes gangrenous, amputation may be necessary. 
  • Vacuum-assisted closure – Used to treat non-healing diabetic foot infections. Healing is facilitated by the procedure. Vacuum-assisted closures reduce air pressure around a wound, which can speed up the healing process.

Management over the long term

Diabetes foot infections tend to become chronic and recurrent, making them more complicated and unpredictable. A diabetic patient’s overall treatment plan should include managing and preventing foot and skin infections.

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When to Consult A Doctor For Foot Infection 

Foot infections such as athlete’s foot or plantar warts can often be treated at home, but other infections require medical attention. Avoiding complications is easier when you seek medical treatment promptly. If you experience pain, redness, and warmth, you should see a doctor. Getting emergency medical help if you have a fever and chills or if you see red streaks or redness spreading from a wound.

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FAQs About Foot Infection Answered by Your Doctors’ Online Team

What is the best treatment for a toe infection?

It has been demonstrated that oral medications are effective, but time taking. Topical treatments (like amorolfine and ciclopirox) can help with minor toenail fungus. If the fungus has already set in, your best bet is an oral antifungal that has been researched and approved by the FDA.

Do I have a bacterial infection on my feet?

You have some types of bacteria on your feet. Keeping your feet in the proper position to generate sweat may cause these bacteria to form. The bacteria, when they feed on sweat, produce acid, which results in foot odor.

What does the foot infection look like?

Numerous signs and symptoms of foot infections include redness, swelling, pain, pus or discharge, an unpleasant odour, blisters or sores, and changes to the skin. The precise look can change depending on the underlying cause, such as bacterial or fungal diseases.

Are foot infections serious?

Foot infections can be serious and require prompt medical attention, especially if left untreated. Infections can spread rapidly, leading to severe complications such as cellulitis, abscess formation, osteomyelitis (infection of the bone), sepsis, and even limb amputation in some cases. People with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, or immunodeficiency are at higher risk of developing serious foot infections and may experience more severe symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment of foot infections can help prevent serious complications and improve outcomes.

What are the early signs of staph infection in the foot?

Early signs of a staph infection in the foot may include redness, warmth, swelling, pain, pus or drainage, formation of blisters or boils, and fever or chills in severe cases. Staph infections can quickly progress and cause serious complications, such as cellulitis, abscess formation, sepsis, or osteomyelitis. A doctor can diagnose the infection through a physical examination, culture of the affected area, and other diagnostic tests and prescribe appropriate antibiotics and wound care to treat the infection.

What is the best antibiotic for foot infection?

The choice of antibiotic for foot infection depends on the severity of the infection, the suspected or identified causative organism, and the patient’s medical history and allergies. Common antibiotics used to treat foot infections include penicillins, cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, clindamycin, and vancomycin. The choice of antibiotic and duration of treatment should be based on the results of bacterial culture and sensitivity testing. 

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