When I decided to run my first half-marathon, I was determined to be as prepared as possible. I bought new gear, ate the "right" food at the "right" times, and stretched and foam rolled like a pro. But the first week into training, I started suffering from blisters, specifically around my arches. I tried everything from new shoes to powders, gels, and duct tape (yes, weird) to fix my ailment. Apparently I wasn’t alone. Blisters can pack a pretty mean punch when it comes to running and other athletic activities Managing blisters in competitive athletes. Brennan, F.H. Jr. Primary Care Sports Medicine, Dewitt Army Community Hospital, Fort Belvoir, VA. Current Sports Medicine Report, 2002 Dec;1(6):319-22.. But there is hope.
Read on for our guide to treating and preventing blisters so you can keep those footsies pounding the pavement pain-free.
What's the Deal?
First and foremost: What the heck is a blister, anyway? These obnoxious little bumps or bubbles result from friction against the foot, causing the outer layers of skin to rub together, separate, and fill with fluid (gross). The culprit can be anything from new or poorly fitting running shoes to wet feet caused by non-absorbent socks. Log enough miles, and they’re bound to pop up.
Blisters shouldn't be ignored, covered with a band-aid, and forgotten.
But blisters shouldn’t be ignored, covered with a band-aid, and forgotten for another day, because they can get infected and cause a whole new world of trouble. Aside from causing localized pain and burning sensations, when blisters are infected they fill with pus (yep, still gross). Not to scare you too much, but if the blister ruptures, there runs a risk for secondary impetigo (a contagious bacterial infection) or cellulitis (a more serious skin infection). Continuing to let infected blisters go untreated could also result in Sepsis, a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection in the bloodstream or body tissue. One more word of caution: Individuals with diabetes are more susceptible to foot blisters (as a result of diabetic neuropathy) and should handle treatment with caution in order to prevent infection Are foot abnormalities more common in adults with diabetes? A cross-sectional study in Basrah, Iraq. Mansour, A.A., and Dahyak, S.G. The Permanente Journal, 2008 Fall;12(4):25-30.. The best bet: Prevent blisters before they start. Here’s how.
Banish Blisters—Your Action Plan
Luckily there’s more than one way to stop blisters before they ruin a run. From moleskin and Vaseline to better-for-you socks and shoes, we’ve compiled a list of key ways to spare your feet and keep you running for the long haul.
- Choose socks wisely. The right socks are super important when it comes to blister prevention. Socks provide extra support for our feet, keep moisture away, and can minimize the friction that leads to those nasty blisters. Steer clear of cotton socks, though, which soak up sweat and moisture and, as a result, are most likely to cause blisters. Try nylon socks instead, which allow for more breathability and less moisture buildup on the foot. Some runners also swear by wicking socks, a wool blend sock that pulls moisture away from feet.
- Double up. If one pair of socks isn't cutting it, try wearing two! That way, any friction can happen between the two pairs of socks, rather than one pair of socks and your own skin.
- Try tapes and bandages. For spots on the feet that are notorious for blisters, try adhering moleskin or other soft but secure bandages to problem areas before throwing on socks and hitting the pavement. One study showed that Blist-O-Ban bandages not only stayed on sweaty feet but also prevented the formation of blisters (when the instructions were followed closely) Efficacy of a new blister prevention plaster under tropical conditions. Sian-Wei Tan, S, Kok, S.K., and Lim, J.K., Department of Pediatric Anaesthesia, KK Women's and Children's Hospital, Singapore. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 2008 Summer;19(2):77-81..
- Prevent friction with powders and creams. Got a well-stocked pharmacy close by? Try a special foot powder like 2Toms Blistershield (Simply pour it into socks to create a frictionless surface on the foot). Other options for preventative care: Dr. Scholl’s Blister Defense Stick, FOOTGLIDE, or good ol’ Vaseline all keep friction to a minimum.
- Buy well-fitted shoes: The least we can do for ourselves is make sure we’re wearing the right training shoes—right? Before hitting the road, visit a specialty running store to make sure you’re wearing the best fit. A running specialist can also perform a gait analysis if blisters persist despite bandages, creams, or other means of prevention.
How to Pop that Bad Boy (or Girl)
If a blister isn't too painful and isn't preventing you from walking, then it's best to keep it intact to help prevent risk of infection (besides, blisters are pretty good at healing themselves when left alone). Cover small blisters with an adhesive bandage, and large ones with a porous, plastic-coated gauze pad (so the blister can breathe).
For the most part, blisters are pretty good at healing themselves on their own.
If popping looks to be the best course of action, always check for potential signs of infection before touching a blister (Call up your doc if the blister is secreting yellow or green pus, if the area becomes increasingly swollen or inflamed, or if you have any other reason to think it could be infected). If there are no signs of infection, follw these steps to pop blisters safely on your own:
- Wash your hands. Don't skimp on the water and soap!
- Clean the blister. Use a clean swab with water and soap, rubbing alcohol, or iodine.
- Sterilize a needle (a small, sharp needle or a pin should do it—nothing fancy). Use rubbing alcohol and a clean swab or pad.
- Take a deep breath. Try not to freak out about poking yourself with a needle.
- Puncture the side of the blister in several spots. Aim for spots close to the blister’s edge. Soak up the draining fluid with a clean piece of cotton or gauze.
- Apply antibiotic ointment. Then place gauze and/or an adhesive bandage over the area (think of it as a construction site—you want that whole section quarantined). Secure gauze with medical tape.
- Wait a few (2-3) days. Then cut away and remove the dead skin (Use sterilized scissors or tweezers and rubbing alcohol to keep the area clean.).
- Repeat step no. 6. Apply more antibiotic ointment and bandage again until healed.
While there may be more than one way to get a blister, there are at least as many ways to prevent and treat them. Don’t get discouraged if one pops up early on in your running career—just assess the issue (stat!), find a preventative method that works for you, and get back on the roads when the skin is healed and free from pain.