Definition and Overview

Foot infection is a painful condition in which a part or the entire foot becomes infected, often due to an injury or open wound. It can be bacterial, fungal, or viral in nature, and may present in different types depending on the specific part of the foot that is affected. Characterized by telltale symptoms such as pain, inflammation, and pus, these infections require prompt treatment to prevent the infection from spreading and causing serious or long-term health problems.

Cause of Condition

As mentioned earlier, foot infections can be caused by virus, bacteria, or fungi. An existing injury or open wound makes the patient’s foot vulnerable to different bacteria and viruses that may enter the body through a skin opening. It is very easy for the foot to pick up bacteria and viruses from the floor that even a little cut can easily get infected.

Fungal infections, however, tend to occur differently and do not usually require an open wound to develop. Most fungal infections are caused by direct skin contact with contaminated surfaces commonly those found in public places and crowded areas. These infections are also contagious and can be easily spread by skin contact or through contaminated floors or objects. Fungal infection can also easily spread from the foot to another part of the body.

Infections of the foot are also identified depending on the specific part of the foot is affected. The different types, which can be generally classified as either soft tissue or bone infections, include:

  • Cellulitis – Bacterial infection of the skin

  • Athlete’s foot – Fungal infection of the skin

  • Abscess – Accumulation of pus in the deeper tissues of the foot

  • Septic arthritis – Infection of the joint

  • Septic bursitis – Infection of the bursa

  • Osteomyelitis – Infection of the bone

  • Nail infections

Risk factors

There are certain risk factors that may increase a person’s likelihood of getting a foot infection. These include:

  • Underlying diseases – People who are suffering from underlying conditions such as diabetes are more prone to foot infections.

  • Existing injury

  • Exposure to contaminated areas – This is a common risk factor for people who spend a lot of time in warm, moist public places, such as locker rooms and swimming pools

Key symptoms

  • Yellowish crusting
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness or red streaks in the surrounding area
  • Warmth
  • Tenderness
  • Pus
  • Fever
  • Boils
  • Blisters
  • Skin sore or ulcer
  • Itching
  • Scaling

Sometimes, the foot may also become inflamed even without an infection present. Some people mistake inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis or tendinitis, as an infection. Swelling alone, however, is rarely caused by an infection. It is important to distinguish between an infection and inflammation because they require different types of treatment.

When left untreated, infection can get worse and may even cause widespread infection in the body, especially when bacteria are involved. This is because bacteria can spread very easily, and may begin in the skin and penetrate the deeper layers of soft tissue, bone, and even the blood, causing blood poisoning or septicaemia. Another possible complication is tissue death, also called gangrene.

Signs of serious complications

  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Drowsiness

Who to See And Types of Treatment Available

If any sign of a foot infection is observed, a person can seek medical care from a general physician or family doctor. A GP can make the necessary referrals if any special medical care is required. For example, skin infections may be referred to a dermatologist, whereas diabetic foot infections may be referred to diabetes specialists.

  • Self-care

Some foot infections are minor and may disappear even without treatment. For example, minor viral infections due to warts or the very common fungal infection, athlete’s foot, often resolve on their own. However, some serious infections may require prompt treatment, so it is still best to consult a professional if any symptoms are observed.

  • Antibiotics and antifungals

Infections of the foot are initially treated with medications, such as antibiotics, antiviral, and anti-fungal ointments or oral medicines. When caught early, there is a very low risk of serious complications and a high success rate. Most of the time, the treatment period lasts only 7 to 10 days, but if the infection is more severe, a longer round of medications may be necessary.

  • Surgical intervention

There are some cases of foot infections wherein medications may not work, such as when the infection has been left alone for some time and has already spread deep into the muscles and fibers under the skin. In such cases, the infected area will need to be cleaned surgically. Also, if there is an abscess, it needs to be drained first before it can be successfully treated.

  • Long-term management

Diabetic foot infections are more complicated and unpredictable because they have the tendency to become chronic and recurrent. Thus, management and prevention of foot or any form of skin infections should be part of a diabetic patient’s overall treatment plan.

References:

  • Fry DE, Marek JM, Langsfeld M. Nonoperative Management of Lower Extremity Arterial Disease, Part 1: Infections in the Ischemic Lower Extremity. Surg Clin North Am. 1998. 78:466.

  • Hill MK, Sanders CV. Skin and soft tissue infections in critical care. Crit Care Clin. 1998 Apr. 14(2):251-62. [Medline].

  • Bowler PG, Duerden BI, Armstrong DG. Wound microbiology and associated approaches to wound management. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2001 Apr. 14(2):244-69. [Medline].

  • Lipsky BA, Polis AB, Lantz KC, Norquist JM, Abramson MA. The value of a wound score for diabetic foot infections in predicting treatment outcome: A prospective analysis from the SIDESTEP trial. Wound Repair Regen. 2009 Aug 11. [Medline].

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