Trench foot, or immersion foot syndrome, is a serious condition that results from your feet being wet for too long. The condition first became known during World War I, when soldiers got trench foot from fighting in cold, wet conditions in trenches without the extra socks or boots to help keep their feet dry.
Trench foot killed an estimated 2,000 American and 75,000 British soldiers during WWI.
Since the infamous outbreak of trench foot during WWI, there’s now more awareness about the benefits of keeping your feet dry. However, it’s still possible to get trench foot even today if your feet are exposed to cold and wet conditions for too long.
Keep reading to learn more about trench foot and what steps you can take to treat and prevent it.
With trench foot, you’ll notice some visible changes to your feet, such as:
- blotchy skin
- skin tissue that dies and falls off
Additionally, trench foot can cause the following sensations in the feet:
- pain when exposed to heat
- persistent itching
These symptoms of trench foot may only affect a portion of the feet. But in the most severe cases, these can extend over the entire feet, including your toes.
Trench foot is caused by feet that get wet and don’t dry off properly. It’s also most common in temperatures of 30˚F to 40˚F. However, trench foot can even occur in desert climates. The key is how wet your feet get, and not necessarily how cold they are (unlike frostbite). Standing in wet socks and shoes for a long period of time tends to make it worse compared to other activities, such as swimming with water shoes.
With prolonged cold and wetness, your feet can lose circulation and nerve function. They are also deprived of the oxygen and nutrients that your blood normally provides. Sometimes the loss of nerve function can make other symptoms, such as pain, less noticeable.
Over time, trench foot can lead to complications if left untreated. These include:
- severe blisters
- an inability to walk on affected feet
- gangrene, or tissue loss
- permanent nerve damage
You may also be more prone to complications if you have any wounds on your feet. While recovering from trench foot, you should be on the lookout for signs of infection, such as swelling or oozing of any wounds.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose trench foot with a physical exam. They will look at any injuries and tissue loss and determine the extent of circulation loss. They may also test out nerve function by seeing if you can feel pressure points on your foot.
As medical professionals have learned more about trench foot, treatment has evolved. During WWI, trench foot was first treated with bed rest. Soldiers were also treated with foot washes made from lead and opium. As their conditions improved, massages and plant-based oils (such as olive oil) were applied. If the symptoms of trench foot got worse, amputation was sometimes necessary to prevent circulation problems from spreading to other areas of the body.
Today, trench foot is treated with relatively straightforward methods. First, you’ll need to rest and elevate the affected foot to encourage circulation. This will also prevent new blisters and wounds. Ibuprofen (Advil) can help alleviate pain and swelling. If you can’t take ibuprofen, your doctor may recommend aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to reduce pain, but these don’t help with the swelling.
Early symptoms of trench foot can also be treated with home remedies. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can employ some of the same techniques as you would with frostbite. Here’s what you should do:
- take off your socks
- avoid wearing dirty socks to bed
- clean the affected area right away
- dry your feet thoroughly
- apply heat packs to the affected area for up to five minutes
If symptoms of trench foot fail to improve after home treatments, it’s time to see your doctor to avoid any complications.
When caught early, trench foot is treatable without causing any further complications. One of the best ways to avoid the symptoms and health risks of trench foot is to prevent it altogether. Be sure to have extra socks and shoes handy, especially if you’re outdoors for any significant period of time. It’s also beneficial to air dry your feet after you wear socks and shoes — even if you don’t think your feet got wet.
Is it contagious?
Trench foot is not contagious. However, if troops are living and working in similar conditions and not taking care of their feet, many soldiers can be affected.Healthline Medical TeamAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.