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September 1998

Foot Odor: Toxic Sock Syndrome

If your feet are a source of backcountry air pollution, here's how to keep them smelling sweet.

If you’d rather shake than spray, there are numerous types of foot powders on drugstore shelves that’ll absorb excess moisture and help nip foot odor in the bacterial bud. For extra cushioning underfoot plus odor control, all for only a few bucks, try Dr. Scholl’s Odor Destroyers Insoles. They are treated with an antimicrobial agent that inhibits stench.

Although impractical on the trail, you can make your own odor-killing concoction by adding 10 drops of lemon oil to 2 ounces of water, and then squeezing in the juice of one lemon. Wash your feet thoroughly with this brew.

Soaking in tea has also proven effective, since the tannic acid contained in tea is a great odor eliminator. Boil a few tea bags in a pint of water for about 15 minutes. Add the brew to 2 quarts of cool water. Soak for 30 minutes. And believe it or not, soaking your feet in vinegar will help keep away stink because its acidic qualities kill bacteria.

If your feet stink despite all efforts to stem the stench, or if they itch, you may have a more serious problem. According to Ross, persistent smell is sometimes caused by “a fungal growth, such as athlete’s foot, which can lead to an infection if untreated.”

The athlete’s-foot fungus thrives on hot, sweaty skin; nowhere does skin stay hotter or sweatier than inside hiking boots. The most common places to acquire this highly contagious fungus is from the floor of a locker room (hence, the name) or public shower, but you can also pick it up from the soil outside your tent.

Athlete’s foot starts with a mild scaling of the skin and progresses to burning pain and incessant itching-the kind that makes you want to scratch the hide off your toes. Your skin will eventually crack, blister, and stink. The inflammation starts on the bottoms of your feet and between the toes, then spreads up the sides and onto the tops of your feet.

Almost half the sufferers of athlete’s foot claim the problem comes and goes for years. Ross says that’s because people don’t treat the condition correctly in the first place. She recommends that you:

  • Start treatment as soon as the first signs and symptoms appear.
  • Keep your feet as clean and dry as possible. (Author’s note: If you’re on the trail, this is your best treatment option. I was once on the Arizona Trail with a guy who had a sudden fungal outbreak. He caught it early enough, and as a result, frequent washing and air-drying cured what could have turned into an extremely uncomfortable situation.)
  • Apply an over-the-counter antifungal cream, lotion, or spray-Tinactin Antifungal or Lotrimin AF, for examples-twice a day.
  • Keep up the treatment for four weeks, even if you think you’ve got it whipped sooner. This is where most people slip up.
  • Briefly expose your feet to direct sunlight every day to curtail fungal growth.
  • If the itch and smell persist after four weeks of self-treatment, see a doctor.

If you follow these tips, you’ll create an unfriendly environment inside your boots for any fungus. You’ll also spare yourself the “agony of da feet” jokes you’ve heard a thousand times and have a happier tent life.

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