Why Do My Feet Have a Weird Smell?

It’s not unusual for feet to have an odor, but if the smell is particularly strong or strange, it could point to an underlying issue. Here are some potential causes of weird-smelling feet and what you can do about it.

Sweat

Sweat itself is odorless. But when sweat mixes with bacteria on the skin, it can cause a smell. The sweat glands in our feet produce a lot of moisture, especially when we wear shoes and socks all day. This damp environment promotes bacterial growth, resulting in foot odor.

Washing your feet daily with soap and water can help reduce bacteria and control odor. Wearing breathable socks and shoes and alternating pairs daily allows them to fully dry out between uses. Using antibacterial foot powder or spray can also help combat odor-causing germs.

Fungal Infections

Fungal infections like athlete’s foot are a common source of foot odor. They occur when fungi overgrow on the skin, often between the toes or on the soles of the feet. The infection creates a distinctive smell, often described as cheese-like. Other symptoms include flaky, cracked skin and redness.

Antifungal creams, sprays and powders can treat most fungal infections. Be sure to apply them thoroughly between toes and all over the feet daily. Keeping feet clean and dry also helps prevent fungus. Disinfect shoes and socks to avoid reinfection. If over-the-counter treatments don’t work, see your doctor who may prescribe an oral antifungal medication.

Bromhidrosis

Bromhidrosis, or foot bromhidrosis, is a chronic condition characterized by feet that produce an unusually strong odor. The smell is often described as offensive, fishy or cheesy. The exact cause is unknown but may be linked to overactive sweat glands in the feet. Bacteria and fungi then feed on this excess sweat, producing smelly waste products.

Bromhidrosis is challenging to treat. Antibacterial soap, shoe disinfectants, prescription antiperspirants and iontophoresis therapy (mild electrical current to hands and feet) may help. In severe cases, oral antibiotics or surgery to remove sweat glands are options. See a dermatologist to discuss treatment for stubborn foot odor due to bromhidrosis.

Diabetes

High blood sugar in people with diabetes provides an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. This can lead to secondary bacterial and fungal infections on the feet, especially between the toes. In addition to standard foot odor, infections cause additional symptoms like skin breakdown, ulcers and nail changes.

Controlling blood sugar levels can help prevent infections that lead to odors. People with diabetes should also examine their feet daily for any wounds or changes and treat minor foot problems right away before they worsen. See a podiatrist for any major foot infections, which may require oral or intravenous antibiotics.

Poor Hygiene

Failing to regularly wash your feet can allow odor-causing bacteria and fungi to flourish. Likewise, not properly drying between the toes after bathing can trap moisture and lead to infections. Shoes and socks that are infrequently washed also harbor microbes.

Get into the habit of washing and fully drying your feet daily. Use antibacterial soap and rotate pairs of shoes to allow them to dry fully between wears. Disinfect socks in hot water or bleach. These simple hygiene steps go a long way in preventing smelly feet.

Hyperhidrosis

Hyperhidrosis is a condition marked by excessive sweating beyond what’s needed to regulate body temperature. People with hyperhidrosis of the feet often complain of sweaty, stinky feet no matter what they try. The sweat creates an environment where bacteria can multiply.

Prescription antiperspirants containing aluminum chloride can help reduce sweating. Iontophoresis treatments and Botox injections are other therapies for hyperhidrosis. Absorbent foot powders can help keep feet dry. Wearing moisture-wicking socks can also help. In severe cases, surgical procedures may be an option.

Poor Circulation

Peripheral arterial disease, a circulatory condition, can decrease blood flow to the feet. This impairs the body’s ability to heal skin wounds and fight infection on the feet. As a result, people with PAD often experience excess skin buildup, sores, fungi and foot odor.

Daily foot care is important for improving circulation issues. Keep feet clean and moisturized to prevent cracking. Avoid going barefoot. Follow your doctor’s advice for managing PAD risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Compression stockings can also aid circulation.

Clogged Glands

The tiny sweat glands on the bottom of the feet can become clogged with dead skin cells and debris. This causes yellowish bumps called plantar filiform papillae. When the sweat can’t get out, it gets trapped within the glands and causes a funky odor.

Exfoliating the feet with a scrub brush or foot file removes dead skin and opens clogged glands. Soak feet first to soften skin. Don’t aggressively scrub or pick at feet, which can damage skin. An over-the-counter liquid callus remover with alpha hydroxy acid can also break down thick, smelly buildup on soles.

New Shoes

That “new shoe smell” some people love is actually caused by chemicals used in shoe manufacturing. Adhesives, dyes, finishes and other substances can cling to the insides of shoes. As you wear the shoes, friction releases these smells. The same goes for retained odors if shoes aren’t properly cleaned and dried between wears.

Before wearing new shoes, air them out outside or spray the insides with a diluted white vinegar solution to help neutralize odors. When breaking in shoes, wear them for short periods, allowing them to fully dry out each time. Proper shoe hygiene, including periodic washing, can prevent lingering smells. If the irritating smell continues, try a different shoe brand.

Infections

Skin conditions like warts, corns and ingrown toenails are prone to secondary bacterial and fungal infections. The infections thrive in the moist, dark environment inside shoes and socks. Ingrown toenails in particular smell unpleasant when infected.

See a podiatrist for stubborn warts, corns, ingrown nails and any other foot infections. They can properly diagnose, treat and remove any problematic tissue. Keep the feet clean and dry to prevent future infections. Disinfect socks and shoes and allow feet plenty of open air time.

Offensive foot odor, especially when chronic or combined with other symptoms, can negatively impact quality of life. Don’t brush it off − consult a podiatrist or dermatologist to discover the underlying cause. Proper treatment can banish the smell and get your feet fresh again. With consistent foot care, you can keep odor at bay and step out with confidence.