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Your feet work hard, sometimes walking thousands of steps per day. That’s why wearing shoes that fit correctly is so important. But finding the right fit isn’t just about length.

Shoe width matters just as much. If your shoes are too snug, you could be putting your feet, and the rest of your body, at risk for a host of foot problems.

Let’s take a look at why shoe width matters and how to make sure you’re wearing the right fit.

Shoe width is measured around the forefoot, which is usually the widest part of your foot. Not all shoe brands offer different widths, though, so finding shoes that are wider or narrower than average can be a challenge.

In the United States, shoe widths, ranging from narrowest to widest, are: AAA, AA, A, B, C, D, E, EE, and EEE. Narrow and wide shoes are also divided into sub-sizes in which the extra letter indicates an even narrower or wider width.

The width also varies between men’s and women’s shoes. For example, a woman’s medium is B and a men’s is D.

Your numerical shoe size usually has a letter next to it that represents the width. Unless you’re in a specialty shoe store, the majority of shoes on the shelves are a medium width.

Studies have found that a large proportion of the population, between 63 percent and 72 percent, are wearing inappropriately sized footwear.

To help you find shoes that are the correct width, and to avoid the many foot issues linked to shoes that are too tight, consider the following:

  • Have your feet measured every time you buy shoes. According to the Cleveland Clinic, your feet change in shape and size over time. Don’t choose shoes based on your past purchases or the size you’ve always worn. To measure your width, wrap a soft tape measure around the widest part of your foot, with your foot flat on the floor.
  • Get measured at the end of the day. Your feet swell and settle throughout the day. Measuring at the end of the day, when your feet are at their largest, can help make sure you don’t underestimate your foot width.
  • Fit your shoes to your wider foot. Most people have one foot that’s bigger than the other. Have both feet measured when trying on shoes, and buy shoes based on the size of your bigger foot.
  • Don’t focus on shoe size alone. Sizes vary among brands and styles, so just because you’re an 8B in one style doesn’t mean that’s your size in another.
  • Don’t expect to break in new shoes. If your shoes don’t fit properly when you try them on, don’t buy them thinking they’ll stretch out. They should fit properly from the get-go to avoid foot problems and pain.
  • Stand up and walk around in shoes when trying them on. This allows your foot to spread out under your weight, and helps you to find shoes that don’t rub or slip.

Tight shoes can wreak havoc on your foot health and can even cause permanent damage.

Corns and calluses

Tight shoes are a common cause of corns and calluses. These thick, hard layers of skin develop on your feet and toes in response to pressure and friction, most often caused by shoes that are too tight.

Corns consist of small, round circles of thick skin that usually develop on the sides or tops of your toes. Calluses are typically larger than corns and usually develop on the bottoms of feet. Though not as painful as corns, calluses can cause pain when they’re thick enough.

Corns and calluses usually develop as a protective reaction to prevent your skin from being damaged or blistered from the pressure caused by too-tight shoes.

Ingrown toenails

An ingrown toenail occurs when the side of the toenail grows into the surrounding flesh, usually the big toe. It can cause pain and swelling, and it can become infected. Tight-fitting shoes are a common cause of ingrown toenails.

Along with being very painful, there’s a risk of complications for people who have poor blood flow to their feet.

Bunions

Bunions are enlargements of bones and tissue around the joint of your big toe. They’re often caused by wearing tight shoes.

These bony knobs can grow quite large, causing your big toe to turn inward and press against your second toe. The result is pain and swelling that worsens when wearing shoes.

Hammer toe

A hammer toe is a deformity that causes the toes to bend at the middle joint. The second, third, and forth toes are usually affected.

People with hammer toe also tend to have corns and calluses due to the toes rubbing against the top of the shoe.

Tight-fitting shoes are a common cause of hammer toe, as they push your toes into a bent position. Without treatment, the toe can lose its flexibility and become fixed, requiring surgery to correct it.

Some foot problems will require surgery to be corrected. But for less severe foot issues, conservative treatments may help relieve pain and prevent your symptoms from getting worse.

Here are some remedies for sore feet:

  • Change your shoes. Buy shoes that are wide enough in size and style to accommodate your feet without pressure or rubbing. Avoid narrow styles and high heels.
  • Use a cold compress. Applying ice to your feet can help relieve swelling and pain. You can do this by applying a cold compress to the sore area for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, several times a day.
  • Soak your feet. An Epsom salt foot soak can help soothe sore muscles and reduce swelling in your feet. Add one cup of Epsom salt to a tub of warm water, and soak your feet for 20 minutes.
  • Get a foot massage. Get a foot massage or massage your own feet to help relieve soreness and improve circulation. You can either massage your feet with your hands or try a foot roller, which you can find online.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. OTC anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, can help with pain and inflammation caused by tight shoes.
  • Pads and insoles. You can buy corn and callus pads and padded insoles online and in drugstores. These provide extra cushioning in your shoes.
  • Use a pumice or foot file. A file or pumice stone can remove dead skin from your feet and get rid of calluses. Soaking your feet in warm water first can help soften the skin so it’s easier to remove. Apply moisturizer afterward to help prevent the skin from drying out again.

Having shoes properly fitted may help ease symptoms and prevent further problems. Depending on your symptoms, you may also want to talk to a doctor.

See a doctor if you:

  • have persistent foot pain that doesn’t improve with a change in shoes and home remedies
  • notice a change in the shape of your toes, such as a bunion or hammer toe
  • have signs of infection in a toe or foot, such as redness, swelling, and pus
  • have swollen feet and ankles
  • have diabetes or problems with blood flow in your feet

Shoe width plays an important role in the comfort and health of your feet. Wearing shoes that are too tight can create pressure and friction on your feet and lead to many foot problems.

Age, gravity, and a number of other factors can change the shape and size of your feet over time. A professional fitting whenever you buy shoes can help you find the fit that’s right for you.