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Protecting Your Feet from the Cold

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Updated January 24, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

It doesn't take freezing temperatures to cause cold injury to your feet. Overexposure to cool, damp conditions can also cause foot symptoms that can require medical attention — and even have lasting consequences. Mild or brief exposure to the cold can cause foot problems that are limited to skin irritation, while more intense exposure may result in permanent damage to the skin and soft tissue below. Having one incident of even a mild cold injury can make you more susceptible to the effects of the cold, increasing your risk for future problems. Cold weather injuries are especially a concern for those in outdoor occupations, outdoor enthusiasts, and people with certain health conditions. To see more about foot conditions caused by cold weather: Frostbite and Other Cold Weather Foot Conditions.

Factors That Can Increase the Risk of Cold-Related Injuries

  • Poor Circulation or Nerve Damage — Any number of health conditions can cause inadequate blood flow to the legs and feet. Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are often associated with poor leg circulation. Raynaud's phenomenon, a tendency toward blood vessel constriction in the fingers and toes, can be associated with previous cold exposure or certain medical conditions, such as autoimmune disease. Peripheral neuropathy, nerve damage that causes diminished feeling in the feet, is also a risk factor.

  • Alcohol — Alcohol use is one of the most common contributing factors to frostbite and other cold-related injuries. Since alcohol dilates blood vessels, it increases heat loss throughout the body. The impaired judgment that goes hand-in-hand with alcohol use can also contribute to cold overexposure.

  • Inadequate Protective Gear — Even though wearing good winter clothing in extreme weather sounds obvious, inadequate gear or protective clothing is still a leading contributing factor to frostbite incidents.

  • Clothing That's Too Tight or Loose — Shoes or socks that are too tight cause pressure areas which will experience decreased blood flow. Gear that is too loose will allow for wind exposure and heat loss.

  • Smoking — Nicotine's effects on blood vessels alters blood flow to the feet.

  • Nutritional Status — Dehydration, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), poor nutritional status, or a low body mass index (BMI) can affect the body's ability to regulate temperature.

  • Excess Sweat or Wetness — Moisture significantly increases heat loss.

Tips for Protecting Your Feet from Cold Injury

  1. Keep warm from head to toe. Dress in layers of insulated, waterproof clothing. Start with a base layer made from synthetic materials or wool, which will wick away sweat and have better insulation. Cotton socks or cotton undergarments will hold sweat against the skin, and should not be used. Choose footwear that's waterproof and designed for cold weather.

  2. Liner socks, which are made of a thin synthetic material such as polypropylene, can be worn under a pair of thicker socks. Full-length socks are preferable over ankle-length. Examples of sock materials designed for cold weather include Coolmax®, Smartwool®, and Dacron®.

  3. Make sure your shoes are a good fit: try them on with the socks you plan to wear outdoors to ensure the sock thickness doesn't make the shoe too tight. For more information, see: How to Find Shoes that Fit

  4. Carry an extra pair of socks if your feet get wet, either from sweating or exposure to water. For tips on protecting your feet from sweat, see: Sweaty Feet and Odor

Sources

Biem, Jay, Niels Koehncke, Dale Classen, and James Dosman. Out of the cold: management of hypothermia and frostbite. CMAJ. 2003 February 4; 168(3): 305–311.

Rintamäki H. Predisposing factors and prevention of frostbite. International Journal Circumpolar Health. 2000 Apr;59(2):114-21.

I Harirchi, A Arvin, J Vash, V Zafarmand, and G Conway. Frostbite: incidence and predisposing factors in mountaineers. Brittish Journal of Sports Medicine. 2005 December; 39(12): 898–901.

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