As long as everything appears to be working properly, we may not pay much attention to our feet. They are often covered with socks or shoes and, as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” However, as soon as something feels off, it can quickly become hard to ignore. In some cases, this can be a good thing, as symptoms of more serious conditions may initially manifest themselves in your lower extremities. Here are some common symptoms to look out for, as well as possible explanations for what those symptoms might mean for your health.
For many people, having cold feet is more than a figure of speech. While it is possible to simply have cold sensations without any serious underlying cause, chronically cold toes could be a sign of poor blood circulation. Smoking and smoking-related conditions like COPD can reduce the lungs’ ability to fully absorb oxygen, leading to lower oxygen levels in the blood. Additionally, peripheral arterial disease (PAD) and several other forms of heart disease can cause your arteries to narrow, which can impede the flow of blood throughout the body. Extremities like hands and feet are particularly susceptible to poor circulation, which may manifest itself through cold sensations. If you notice that your feet are almost always cold or numb, consult your doctor to figure out whether there are any underlying medical problems.
As unpleasant and distracting as they may be, itchy feet aren’t normally a sign of a serious medical condition. The most common culprit of itchy, scaly skin on the feet is a fungal infection like athlete’s foot. These infections thrive in damp environments, usually begin between the toes and occur most commonly in people whose feet have become very sweaty while confined to tight-fitting shoes. While athlete's foot is contagious, it can be treated easily with over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal medications. In some cases, itchy feet may result from an allergic reaction to skin creams or from an immune condition like psoriasis. Talk with your doctor if your itchy feet persist or worsen with OTC treatments.
A rash or fungal infection like athlete’s foot commonly leads to scaly, reddish skin, but many other conditions may also result in discoloration of the feet. One condition, known as Raynaud’s phenomenon, is characterized by a sequence of color changes in the skin as a response to cold or stress. During an instance of Raynaud’s, the affected area turns white as the arteries begin to narrow and blood flow is reduced. The affected area may start to feel cold or numb and eventually turn blue as blood flow is further restricted. Sometimes, as circulation improves, your skin may turn red before finally returning to normal. Raynaud’s occurs most commonly without an underlying disease. In some cases, however, Raynaud’s may be an early sign of a more serious condition like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
Clubbing involves changes in the area surrounding and supporting the finger or toenail. Common symptoms of nail clubbing include softening of the nail bed, bulging of the tip of the toe and curving of the nails to form a sharper angle with the toe (often described as resembling the head of an upside-down spoon). A significant majority of clubbing cases stem from heart and lung diseases that reduce oxygen levels in the blood. Talk with your doctor if you notice changes in your finger or toenails that resemble clubbing, as this could be a sign of a serious condition like lung cancer, heart disease and Crohn’s disease.
Most people experience swelling in their feet at one point in their lives. Often, the cause of the swelling boils down to something as simple as standing for an extended period of time, wearing restrictive footwear, going on a long flight or sustaining a minor injury like a sprained ankle. However, if the swelling lasts for more than a couple of days, it could be a sign of a more serious medical condition. Fluids like blood may build up in your legs and cause swelling as a result of congestive heart failure, kidney disease or even as a side effect of prescription medications for diabetes and high blood pressure. Swelling may also result from inflammation stemming from rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. It is important to seek emergency medical attention if swelling is accompanied by symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or dizziness, as these could indicate a blood clot or another serious heart condition.
The sensation of burning feet can vary from mild (numbness and tingling) to severe (distracting pain that can even interfere with sleep). Something as simple as tired feet or a common infection like athlete’s foot can cause short-term symptoms like burning or tingling. In more severe cases, burning in the feet could be a sign of nerve damage from diabetes or a circulatory condition known as peripheral arterial disease (PAD). Seek medical attention if the burning sensation lasts for several weeks, if symptoms become more intense and painful or if you start losing feeling in your toes or feet. In the meantime, the Mayo Clinic suggests resting and elevating your feet to ease symptoms. Additionally, bathing your feet in cold water can also reduce pain and burning.
Pain in the big toe
Generalized foot pain is one thing, but sometimes specific pain points to a more specific condition. If the pain is focused around the tip and corner of your nail, it could be a sign that you are developing an ingrown toenail. Sudden, severe bouts of pain localized in the joint of a big toe could suggest a complex form of arthritis known as gout. Symptoms of gout include intense joint pain followed by lingering discomfort and often occur at night without any warning. Rheumatoid arthritis could be another explanation, as early symptoms tend to affect toe and finger joints before moving to the hands and feet. If you experience persistent discomfort or sudden localized pain with no apparent explanation, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
As with other parts of your body, discoloration in your nails may be a sign that something is wrong. An infection of nail fungus often begins as a yellow spot under the tip of your nail. Unfortunately, as you may have learned in high school biology, fungi tends to thrive in dark, warm and moist environments, making the underside of a toenail the perfect home. If left unnoticed or untreated, this discoloration can spread deeper into the nail and to other surrounding toes. Outside of some minor pain and cosmetic damage, nail infections don’t normally present a major health hazard. However, if you have diabetes, an unchecked fungal infection could impair blood circulation to your feet and lead to more serious health complications.
White discoloration of the nails doesn’t necessarily point to a health issue. Leukonychia (sometimes called a “milk spot”) is a medical term for common white blotches that start around the base of the nail and move as the nail grows. Contrary to popular belief, these marks are not a sign of a vitamin deficiency and are generally considered harmless. A white mark at the tip of your nail, however, may be more serious. An injury may cause part of the toenail to separate from the nail bed, which can make the tip of the nail appear whiter. Additionally, some fungal infections first manifest themselves as white marks on the tip of the nail. If unchecked, these infections could spread throughout the rest of the nail, leading to further discoloration and potentially causing the nail to separate from the nailbed.