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Healthy feet, happy feet

Posted: November 27, 2011 - 1:05am

Squelch, squish! These noises accompanied the shock of cold water on unhappy feet as my running shoes splashed into a deceptively deep Juneau street puddle. My Xtratufs were out of commission with several large holes, so a pair of running shoes that soaked up rain like a sponge would have to suffice until the boots could be repaired.

Living in the beautiful rainforests of Southeast Alaska poses many challenges to healthy feet. Because of the weather or for occupational purposes, many people wear footwear such as rubber boots or heavy work boots. Since our feet sweat, wearing non-breathable shoes or even regular shoes all day can be problematic. The moisture that accumulates creates an ideal habitat for fungi that cause athlete’s foot and toenail fungus.

“The fungus among us! I would say that 80 percent of people here in Southeast have the fungus,” commented Dr. Anh T. Lam, the podiatrist at the Southeast Foot and Ankle Center.

Lam, who also has a clinic in Ketchikan, observed that in small communities, many people share the same public spaces such as gyms, pools, and locker rooms.

“It’s good to protect your feet in these communal areas,” he said. Warts and fungi can be picked up easily in these places.

“Children are particularly susceptible to the viruses that cause warts,” he said. “Their high metabolism allows the warts to spread quickly.”

Wearing a pair of clean flip flops in public places is a simple way to put a barrier between the feet and potentially contaminated surfaces.

Practicing good foot hygiene is another important way to keep foot maladies away. In my family, instead of washing behind the ears, I always remember my father telling us kids to wash our feet, especially between the toes. We were taught to use the tip of a nail file to clean “gunk” from under the edges of the toenails to prevent toenail fungus. When I went to college, my first care package lovingly included a toenail brush. “Brush your teeth, and brush your feet!” said the card from my parents.

In the unfortunate event that our feet do catch a case of athlete’s foot or become stricken by the stubborn scourge of toenail fungus, treatments range from a variety of commercial products at the grocery store to home remedies. Oral antifungal medications are commonly prescribed to patients with toenail fungus, but recently they have been linked with liver damage. Instead of medications, Lam encourages simpler methods. Soaking the feet regularly in vinegar or an Epsom salt solution can yield visible results for athlete’s foot in a few days. The same methods will work for toenail fungus, but it will take longer to cure.

Lam also recommends applying antifungal cream to soften the nail. “When the nail can breathe, it will heal. Be careful of products that seal the fungus in,” he warned.

After 10 years of treating feet in Southeast Alaska, Lam has figured out which strategies work the best in our rainy climate. He has developed a line of locally made skin and nail care products called Wet Frog that is available at his clinic and at the What A Foot store in the Mendenhall Mall.

“Regardless of whether you use foot salts, creams, commercial products, or medications, you have to wait for the nail to grow out,” he said. “It will take nine months to a year before you see the results.” In any case, battling toenail fungus is a war won by patience, persistence, and constant monitoring.

Another important measure to prevent foot fungus is to keep shoes dry.

“If you don’t let your shoes dry out, guess what grows in there?” asked Lam.

It is a good idea to have an extra pair of shoes and alternate between them so that one pair can dry while the other is being used. Taking the insole out will also help the inside of the shoe to dry faster and more completely.

This fall a former trail crew leader in Cordova introduced me to his foot-saving secret: electric boot dryers. He explained every day after work, he would put his sweaty, soggy Xtratufs on the pod-shaped dryers and plug them in. By morning they would be dry for another day in the rainforest.

Replacing shoes periodically is another strategy that will prevent bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms from establishing a permanent home in your shoes. When shopping for shoes, it is important that the shoe truly fits. Lam mentions many people make the common mistake of wearing the wrong shoes. Nowadays shoes are factory-made and mass-produced, but people’s feet come in variety of shapes and sizes. If necessary, get a proper fitting or consult a podiatrist for orthotic devices to ensure that the shoe provides the necessary support as well as comfort.

Everyone has their own methods of making foot hygiene a seamless part of the daily routine. Some people keep a pumice stone hanging up in their bathroom to make it convenient to remove dry, dead skin from their feet after a shower. I know several people who multi-task and soak their feet while reading the newspaper or surfing the Internet.

Our feet are such an essential part of our lives that it is important to take good care of them.

“Healthy feet are connected to overall wellness,” said Lam. “We believe that if you have happy feet, you will have a happy life.”

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau. Contact her at jennu.jnu@gmail.com

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