What Is Trench Foot?

Why Is It Called Trench Foot?

Trench foot occurs when your feet are exposed to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions.
Trench foot occurs when your feet are exposed to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions.

A French army doctor first described the condition in 1812. But the name itself came about in World War I. Soldiers had to stand in wet, muddy trenches as they fought. In World War II, sailors got the same condition, which they called “immersion foot,” when their feet soaked too long in cold water on lifeboats. During the Vietnam war, soldiers got the same condition when they wore soggy boots in the jungle all day and night. They called it “jungle rot.”

It’s not good for your feet to stay wet and cold for a long time. Moist body parts lose heat a lot faster than dry ones. To keep the rest of you warm, your body shuts off blood flow to the cold limbs. In the case of wet, cold feet, this can hurt the skin on your feet, your feet’s tissue, or nerves in your feet. That’s what causes trench foot. It usually happens in cool water between 32 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. But, it can also happen in warmer water. You also might hear it called “immersion foot.”

You can prevent trench foot. But if it happens, you’ll recover if your feet are treated quickly. If you wait too long, you could have painful symptoms that don’t go away. In serious cases, doctors may have to remove the damaged foot.

Here’s information to help you understand what trench foot is and what can be done about it if it happens to you.

What Caused Trench Foot?

Anyone can get trench foot. It’s most likely to happen when you’re in a wet place you can’t get away from. That’s why it’s more common in military settings. Soldiers may wear wet boots for a long time on a combat or training mission. Some studies show that people of African descent have a higher chance of getting it. But, researchers need to know more to be sure.

Other things that increase your chances include:

  • Long, wet hikes
  • Homelessness
  • Shipwrecks
  • Plane crashes in wet areas

Not everyone gets trench foot when their feet are wet for hours. There are some health-related reasons that make trench foot more likely under the right circumstances. For example, you have a greater chance of getting it if you:

  • Don’t get enough healthy food
  • Are dehydrated
  • Are tired and stressed
  • Have blood-flow problems
  • Have diabetes
  • Have a mental illness
  • Drink a lot of alcohol

Trench Foot Symptoms

You may see signs of trench foot in 10 to 14 hours. But it could take 2 to 3 days to set in. The condition can affect your heel, toes, or your whole foot. Your feet may go numb. They may be red at first but then turn pale or white. They may also:

  • Swell
  • Look spotty
  • Tingle, itch, or prickle
  • Hurt
  • Feel heavy
  • Have wrinkled soles with a layer of white, damaged skin

How Do Doctors Diagnose Trench Foot?

If you have signs of trench foot, go to the emergency room. The doctor will give you a physical exam and ask about your past health and the situation that led to your hurt feet. That will help him find out if you have trench foot, frostbite, or another condition.

The ER doctor might admit you to the hospital.

Trench Foot Treatment

You need to get to a warm place right away. Once there, you should take off your wet shoes and socks. Wash and pat your feet dry with a towel. Don’t rub them because that could damage the tissue. Then go to an emergency room.

Your feet may turn red and hurt as they warm up. The slower they warm up, the less painful the rewarming process will be. In the ER or the hospital, your feet will warm up gradually with bed rest, elevation, and air drying at room temperature. Rewarming them too fast can increase pain, swelling, and stress on your damaged skin.

During the painful rewarming process, your doctor might give you a nerve block -- an injection that numbs nerves.

You can take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), like ibuprofen, to help reduce swelling and pain, too. Besides bed rest to keep weight off your hurt and damaged feet, you should also:

  • Keep your feet raised
  • Not rub your feet
  • Wear clean, dry socks every day
  • Not wear socks when you sleep
  • Not smoke
  • Stay hydrated

Your doctor may want you to get a tetanus shot. He might also give you a drug called amitriptyline to treat your nerve pain.

In serious cases, you might need surgery to remove damaged tissue.

Tell your doctor about any symptoms that don’t go away.

Does Trench Foot Go Away?

You may also have:

  • Ongoing pain when your feet get cold
  • A lot of feet sweating
  • Sensitivity to touch or future cold injury

As you recover, it’s a good idea to check your feet every day. Serious cases of trench foot can leave blisters, but trench foot can change the sensation in your feet. That means you might not even feel a cut or blister. Openings in the skin can increase your chances of infection and gangrene. With gangrene, tissue dies. This condition requires immediate medical treatment.

How Do You Cure Trench Foot?

You can fully recover if your trench foot is mild and you get treatment right away. You may need to treat your pain for a while though. You might also need physical therapy.

How to Avoid Trench Foot

If you wear boots, make sure they aren’t too tight. If your feet do get wet, change your socks often. You should drink plenty of water and move around to help keep up blood flow. But the best way to avoid trench foot is to keep your feet dry and warm.

References
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Brain: “Chronic non-freezing cold injury results in neuropathic pain due to a sensory neuropathy.”

UpToDate: “Nonfreezing cold water (trench foot) and warm water immersion injuries.”

Merck Manuals: “Nonfreezing Tissue Injuries.”

OSHA, U.S. Department of Labor: “Trench Foot.”

Military Medicine: “Frostbite and Immersion Foot Care.”

Bush, J., Watson, S. Trench Foot, StatPearls Publishing, 2019.

CDC: “Trench Foot or Immersion Foot.”
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