Foot infections are a serious complication of diabetes which can affect up to 1 in 4 people with diabetes at some point in their life.

Foot infections are preventable if signs of foot damage are spotted early enough. If treatment is delayed, there is a much higher chance that amputation may be required.

How common are foot infections?

Foot infections are a common complication of diabetes. Researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle report that prevalence of foot ulceration in people with diabetes is estimated to affect between 1 in 10 and 1 in 25 people, whereas the lifetime risk of foot ulcers occurring is between 1 in 6 and 1 in 4 people.

What causes foot infections?

Foot infections result from wounds to the foot that become infected. If a wound does not heal properly, it can develop into a foot ulcer – an area of the foot without skin to cover the tissue underneath.

Because the skin plays an important role in protecting against infection of the tissue beneath it, foot ulcers are at much higher risk of infection.

Foot ulcers commonly develop on the big toe and the area of the heel which is in contact with the ground when walking.

Wounds which lead to foot ulcers may occur as a result of:

  • Cuts or burns to the feet
  • Ingrown toenails
  • Incorrect treatment of corns or calluses
  • Poorly fitting shoes or other footwear

Risk factors

A number of factors can increase the risk of food ulcers and infections. These include:

  • Poorly controlled diabetes
  • Long-term diabetes – living with diabetes over many years or decades
  • Nerve disease (neuropathy)
  • Poor circulation

How can the foot be affected?

Foot infections are a serious health threat and can result in amputation. In fact, people with an infected foot ulcer are 50% more likely to require amputation than people with non-infected foot ulcers. If treated quickly, foot ulcers have a much better chance to heal.

If a foot infection is not treated quickly it can lead to gangrene (death of the affected tissue), which requires removal of the dead tissue and, in some cases, amputation.

If gangrene is not treated it can lead to bacterial infection of the blood, septicemia, which is a life threatening condition.

Types of foot infection

Foot infections may be categorized as being mild, moderate or severe depending on how wide and deep the infected would is and whether any other complicating factors are present. However, bear in mind that foot infections characterized as mild doesn’t mean they are not serious.

Foot infections may also be split into types depending on which microbes have infected the wound.

What are the signs of foot infection?

The signs that your foot may be infected are wide-ranging but are not always obvious, so it is important to notify your doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • Cuts, burns or sores
  • Changes in color of the skin or toenails
  • Areas of dry or cracked skin
  • Swelling
  • In grown toenails
  • Loss of hair on the feet or lower legs
  • Fungal infections

Checking your feet everyday is vital as the presence of nerve disease (neuropathy) means foot damage can occur without feeling it.

How are foot infections treated?

Treatment for foot ulcers and infections will vary depending on the extent of damage, which microbes have infected the wound and whether gangrene has set in.

Therapies may include use of antibiotics, debridement (removal of dead or infected tissue), dressings, hyperbaric oxygen treatment, larval (maggot) therapy and surgery.

The last and worst case scenario is amputation, which may be required if the foot, or part of the foot, is badly infected or damaged,.

Preventing foot infection

There are various steps you can take to help protect against damage, foot ulcers or infection occurring to your feet:

  • Check your feet daily for signs of damage
  • Have your feet checked by your healthcare provider at least 4 times per year
  • Wash and dry your feet daily
  • Take care when cutting your toenails
  • Ask your health care provider if you experience any difficulty in trimming your toenails
  • Treat corns and calluses gently – do not use any sharp objects or liquid treatments on them
  • Protect your feet from hot surfaces –do not walk barefoot
  • Wear well fitting shoes
  • Take physical activity regularly to promote better blood circulation