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What are blisters?

Blisters are fluid-filled sacs that look like fleshy bubbles on the skin. The most familiar type occurs as blisters on feet as a result of friction from shoes that don’t fit well.

What are the symptoms?

Blisters, including blisters on feet, begin with redness over the spot where irritation is occurring. Eventually, the painful, bubble-like sac appears on the affected area. If the fluid sack is ruptured, they can become infected and begin to form pus. If the infection progresses, red streaks on the skin running upward from the site of the blisters indicate cellulitis. If a streak develops or you begin to run a fever, seek prompt medical treatment.

What are the causes of blisters?

Shoes that don’t fit properly because they’re too large or too small are the main cause of blisters on the feet. If you’re doing a lot of walking, rubbing and friction are inevitable even while wearing the best shoes. You’re most likely to get blisters when your feet perspire and your socks stick to your skin – the friction from walking pulls the skin back and forth over underlying tissue. You can reduce the chances of developing blisters by wearing a sock liner under a heavier pair of socks – the fabrics rub against each other instead of your feet. (Polypropylene sock liners are preferable to cotton because they remove perspiration from the skin and keep your feet dry.) To reduce moisture and help prevent blisters, you can also powder your feet and socks.

Another common location is the hands. Blisters develop as the result of unusual, chronic irritation (from, for example, manual labor with shovels or other tools) by hands that have not previously developed protective calluses. Leather-palmed work gloves can prevent this.

What is the conventional blister treatment?

Most blisters don’t require medical treatment and can be handled by first aid that you can administer yourself. The first step in blister treatment is to protect the irritated area as soon as you see signs of redness that signal the development of a blister. Apply some moleskin (a flannel-covered adhesive bandage) on the vulnerable area. You can also use a water-based gel-pad dressing (one brand is known as "2nd Skin" by Spenco) or a blister plaster. Make sure your feet are dry (change socks, if possible). Or, you can cover the area with petroleum jelly – it will provide temporary pain relief until it melts in response to the heat from your feet.

When you’re hiking or plan to be on your feet all day, take extra moleskin or a water-based gel-pad dressing with you to use if you feel any skin irritation. (By the way, many hikers say duct tape works just as well.)

Once a blister forms, you may need to pierce it before you find relief. (Be certain your tetanus shot status is up to date. If not, get a booster from your doctor.) Then, take these precautions:

  • Make sure your hands and fingers are clean.
  • Sterilize a needle in a flame until it glows red. After the needle cools, use it to puncture the edge of the blister and then gently press out the fluid. Leave the loose skin in place – the blister will heal faster.
  • Dab on some antibiotic ointment or clean your skin with a sterilizing-wipe and cover the area with gauze or a gel dressing.

What therapies does Dr. Weil recommend for blisters?

Dr. Weil recommends the first aid measures outlined above for blister treatment. Instead of antibiotic ointment, you can use tea-tree oil on the site of blisters that you have lanced and drained. To prevent blisters, learn to recognize "hot spots," the places on your feet where blisters are most likely to form. Before you head to the golf course or leave for a hike, put some moleskin on the vulnerable area.