Trench Foot

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

Trench Foot: How to Save Your Feet in a Flood

WWII poster: "This is trench foot"

World War II poster from the U.S. National Archives warning about trench foot.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Trench foot, also called immersion foot, was common in soldiers who had to spend hours upon hours standing in trenches with cold water up to their ankles or knees. But it can occur in anyone who stands in cold water (33 to 59 F) or wears wet socks or shoes for long periods in the cold. It usually takes ten hours or longer of these constant conditions—the cooler the quicker. Think campers or water-related disasters.

The constant cold wetness injures the tiny blood vessels that bring nutrition to your feet, leading to foot-tissue damage. Problems range from burning and aching to muscle, nerve, and skin destruction. Trench foot can trigger years of painful, swollen feet, or even partial loss of a foot or feet. There’s no real cure for trench foot, so prevention is essential.

If you have no choice but to go long periods with wet feet, the following helps prevent trench foot:

  • Clean, then air dry your feet for eight out of twenty-four hours (preferably eight hours straight). This means no socks. Lying down helps with circulation.
  • Wipe your shoes or boots out, and allow them to dry.
  • Change into dry socks a minimum of three times a day.
  • Keep the rest of your body warm.
  • Move your legs around, walk, work your toes, raise up and down on your toes—anything to get the blood flowing.

Early Symptoms of Trench Foot

  • Blanching or mottled skin
  • Swelling
  • Cramping
  • Numbness

Treatment of Trench Foot

Gently warm the feet. Five minutes of soaking in warm, not hot, water may help. Or just air warm.

A few hours after warming, the feet may become:

  • Red
  • Painful—even throbbing and severe.
  • Swollen more
  • Sensitive to light touch

Later you can develop:

  • Skin or muscle damage
  • Rashes
  • Numbness
  • Aching
  • Episodes of extreme foot sweating
  • Episodes of blistering

If areas of the skin turn black, that means tissue is dying. You need to get medical help if at all possible. If you can’t, start antibiotics if you have them. You will need to start treating it as a wound prone to infection and more damage.

  • Karl Robinson

    can trench foot and athletes foot cohabitate on one foot?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Yes. They’re two entirely separate problems.

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  • Mom Dailey

    My daughter, and many of her classmates at West Point, are suffering from trench foot. Some are in worse conditions that others. I was wondering if an Epsom Salts soak would help trench foot…or salt water? We live about 2 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and she could go soak her feet in natural salt water pretty quickly. Her feet are swollen and painful. They seem to get worse when she wears shoes. She is on summer leave right now…for a week…so we need to get this figured out pretty quickly. Thanks!

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If the symptoms are swelling and pain, yes you could try some luke-warm water and Epsom Salts for no more that 10-15 minutes every 4 hours. Be sure she dries the feet well in-between. If she has any cracks or sores or her feet look infected at all, she should see a doctor (hopefully a doctor at West Point knows of her condition also). Also, if she has even tiny cracks or sores, she should stay out of the Gulf. Again, hopefully her doctor at West Point knows her condition since preventing further injury by good shoes and keep her feet dry and warm is essential to prevent further chronic damage.

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  • divadmas

    boric acid is uncommonly used now, i think because of its toxicity. caution would be advised esp for babies. does anyone have any solid information?

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Divadmas and Sonia, Boric acid is poisonous and should never be taken orally, inhaled, or put in open wounds. It does have good antifungal properties and can be used on intact skin. Boric acid vaginal suppositories sometimes can cure yeast infections that don’t respond to other treatments.

    • sonia

      well………… that recipe was from a was posted about 5 years ago, i have not seen it latly, i agree that ANYTHING you use could be harmful to a person. do note that boric acid is used to treat pregnant mother that have PID,

  • sonia

    first id like to say thank you, to me a good Dr. is one that is not cosed minded, one that still treats others like there are people, thank you!!!!

    my son is in the milatary, he developed something on his feet like trench foot.his feet would bleed , and his toes where growing together ,he went to the dr. and the dr. couldnt do anything for him, so mom to the rescue! lol, i found this recipe and made it up for him and had him use it, hes use to my odd resipes! lol, anyway in 1-2 weeks it was GONE, it works great! i hope you all enjoy this recipe and any other odd recipes i have.

    an anti-fungal / anti-yeast treatment
    2-tablespoons boric acid.
    1-cup cornstarch.

    place in a large salt shaker. shake on any area with fungal rash.
    makes a great baby shower gift.
    some skin rashes are severe enough to take two weeks to heal. also works great on athletes foot.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Thanks, Sonia.