Having smelly feet can be embarrassing and frustrating, leading many to wonder if it could indicate an underlying medical issue. The odor is often described as smelling like cheese, vinegar or ammonia and tends to get worse with sweat and heat. While stinky feet are very common, what causes this condition and could it actually signify a more serious health problem?
What Causes Stinky Feet?
Stinky feet are most often caused by bacteria growth on the skin of the feet. There are over 250,000 sweat glands in feet that produce perspiration to cool the body and keep feet from overheating. When feet sweat, the warm and damp environment allows bacteria to thrive. The most common bacteria found on stinky feet are Micrococcus sedentarius and Corynebacterium xerosis. As these bacteria feed on dead skin cells and sweat, they produce pungent gases that cause foot odor.
Wearing tight, non-breathable shoes and socks can exacerbate smelly feet by not allowing feet to breathe and sweat to evaporate. Not washing feet daily, not drying properly between the toes, and wearing the same shoes day after day provides an optimal environment for odor-causing bacteria to accumulate and grow. Fungal infections like athlete’s foot can also contribute to foot odor.
While stinky feet are unpleasant, the cause is usually benign. However, there are some instances where persistent foul foot odor may indicate an underlying medical condition.
When Stinky Feet Signal a Health Problem
Though uncommon, there are some scenarios in which chronic, severe foot odor can signify a health issue:
Diabetes – High blood sugar levels in people with diabetes provide abundant food for bacteria, often leading to increased foot sweating and odor. This raises the risk of foot infections as well.
Hyperhidrosis – This condition characterized by excessive sweating can create ideal conditions for odor-causing bacteria. Hyperhidrosis may be idiopathic (no cause) or secondary to another medical condition.
Poor circulation – Reduced blood flow to the extremities can lead to a buildup of waste products in the feet that bacteria feed on. Poor circulation is linked to peripheral artery disease, diabetes and other diseases.
Immune or nerve issues – Feet may sweat excessively due to an overactive immune system or nerve damage in the feet. This allows more bacteria to grow.
Skin conditions – Diseases like psoriasis and eczema can cause plaques and scales on the feet that trap bacteria and create more odor. Fungal infections are also more common.
Obesity – Being overweight places extra pressure on feet, causing more sweating. The folds of skin may also harbor more bacteria.
Stress and anxiety – Excessive sweating of the feet is a common physical response to stress and anxiety. This can make feet excessively smelly.
While diabetes is perhaps the most well-known condition associated with foot odor, various diseases and disorders can be contributing factors. Persistent, severe foot odor may warrant medical evaluation to identify or rule out any underlying problems.
Caring for Stinky Feet
To combat smelly feet, good hygiene is key. Here are some tips for keeping feet fresh:
- Wash feet daily with antibacterial soap, scrubbing between toes. Dry thoroughly, especially between toes where moisture gets trapped.
- Apply foot powder or spray antibiotic/antifungal spray after washing and drying feet to help control odor and infections.
- Alternate shoes daily so they have time to thoroughly air out and dry.
- Wear moisture-wicking socks to soak up sweat and change them frequently if very sweaty. Avoid socks with cotton which retains moisture.
- Apply underarm antiperspirant to feet at bedtime to reduce sweating overnight. The aluminum salts help minimize sweat.
- Consider shoe inserts and foot pads that contain charcoal, copper fibers or baking soda to help absorb odors.
- Have shoes professionally cleaned to kill bacteria and eliminate odors.
- Soak feet in diluted white vinegar or black tea daily to control bacteria growth.
- Get pedicures periodically to remove calluses and thickened skin where bacteria collect.
See a podiatrist if good hygiene fails to take care of stinky feet. They can assess for any underlying problems and provide prescription antiperspirants or medications if needed. With consistent foot care, most smelly feet can be kept fresh. While rarely indicating something serious, preventing and controlling foot odor pays dividends for comfort and confidence.