Excessive sweat and odor are two foot problems that usually occur together. It is normal for feet to sweat because this is one way the body regulates temperature and keeps us from overheating. However, the excess moisture from sweating plus the heat inside a shoe provide a perfect environment for bacteria and fungi, which cause the dreaded odor.
The more feet sweat, the worse foot and shoe odor tend to be. Sweaty feet can be a problem for children and adults alike, although older adults sweat less because sweat ducts decrease in size as we age. Besides odor, other foot problems can occur from excessive sweating, including:
The best way to control foot odor is to keep feet as dry as possible. It may not be realistic for most people to change their socks during the day or to remove their shoes frequently to allow their feet to air-out. But some over-the-counter (OTC) products can help keep feet drier and reduce foot odor. They include:
- Antiperspirant products for the feet, such as Certain Dri Feet Moisture Control Pads
- Foot and sneaker powders for absorbing sweat and odor
- Odor-absorbing insoles that are inserted into the shoes
- Sneakers with breathable mesh tops
- Socks made with performance materials like CoolMax, which wick moisture away from the skin better than cotton, keeping skin drier
In some cases, sweating is not easily controlled with OTC products and is more than just an occasional annoyance. When sweating is excessive and becomes a concern, it is referred to as hyperhidrosis. Hyperhidrosis can be stress-related, which is why it's sometimes referred to as emotional sweating. Stress-related sweating often occurs at the palms, underarms and soles of the feet. This pattern of sweating, which happens even when you're not overheated, is common in young people and may last into adulthood.How does someone know when they are dealing with hyperhidrosis instead of normal sweating? If the sweat and odor are not helped to any degree with OTC products and they have become a source of embarrassment or stress, it may be hyperhidrosis. An example of hyperhidrosis is someone who needs to change socks often or who goes through shoes frequently due to odor. In this case, a medical evaluation would be advisable to rule out other less common causes of hyperhidrosis, such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism or chronic fatigue syndrome.
People who suffer from hyperhidrosis are more prone to develop certain skin problems and secondary infections on their feet. Symptoms to watch out for include:
- Redness or painful areas of the soles
- White, wrinkled skin (a sign of excessive moisture and possible fungal infection)
- Changes in skin texture, such as pitting (small craters)
- Odor that does not improve with OTC remedies
- Any itching or scaling skin (may be signs of athlete's foot or atopic dermatitis)
To help alleviate odor and protect the skin against the irritating effects of sweat, try an Epsom salt soak. Dissolve approximately two tablespoons of Epsom salt (can be found where first-aid products are sold) per quart of cool or warm water and soak feet for 10 to 15 minutes. This can be done daily or as needed.
Traditional medical treatments for hyperhidrosis typically include topical, prescription-strength antiperspirants such as Drysol. A newer treatment for hyperhidrosis involves botulinum toxin (Botox) injections to the soles, which can minimize excessive sweating for up to a year. Another treatment, iontophoresis, uses a foot-bath device to deliver a low-level electrical current, at home or in a medical facility. The current can decrease sweat-gland activity.
Dockery, DPM, Gary L. and Crawford, DPM, Mary Elizabeth (Ed.). Cutaneous Disorders of the Lower Extremity. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1997. 277-279.
Levine, RPT, DPM, Suzanne M. and Lautin, MD, FACR, Everett M. (2011) Can Botulinum Toxin Have An Effect For Hyperidrosis? Podiatry Today 24:58-64.
Thomas, Isabelle, MD, et. al., Palmoplantar Hyperhidrosis: A Therapeutic Challenge. American Family Physician. 2004 Mar 1;69(5):1117-1121.