Keep your toes and feet toasty in the winter cold

February 4, 2014 —

Fight the winter chill with the right socks

Wool socks keep your feet warmer and dryer than cotton.

“My feet are freezing!”

This has been a frequent refrain this winter, as we have been blessed with Arctic-like wind chills in central Iowa. Being outside for just a few minutes can cause your toes to feel numb. What can you do to ensure that your toes stay “toe-stee” when you are inside and out?

  1. Keep the rest of your body warm. By keeping warm, your body will not “steal” warm blood from your feet to keep your core from losing heat. Wear a hat to keep heat from escaping through your head.
  2. Keep your feet warm and dry. Wear a thin inner layer of polypropylene socks which are sold under numerous brands and available anywhere outdoor gear is sold. They will wick moisture away from your skin and keep you warm. But to be effective, you need to wear a warmer sock over the polypropylene. A wool sock is fine, but cotton is not since it tends to stay damp. Try a pair from brand names like Drymax®, ThickSmart®, Wigwam® or Thorlo®.
  3. Heat your shoes. Without a doubt, your best friend will be some type of chemical hand or toe warmer that is activated by squeezing the package. Placed over your toes, it will keep them warm for a few hours, but make sure you have room for them in your shoes. You can also purchase heated insoles made by ThermaCELL®. Place the insoles in your shoes after you charge them and adjust the temperature with a remote control!
  4. Dip your toes in warm water. If you encounter extreme coldness or numbness in your toes or feet, immediately put them in warm water (100-104 degrees). Keep your feet immersed for up to 15 minutes. Do not repeatedly take your feet out of the water and then re-immerse; it will only make the problem worse. The skin blood vessels will undergo repeated bouts of increasing blood flow while in the warm footbath and then decreased blood flow when they encounter room temperature. When your feet are so cold that they hurt, the skin is unable to do this function adequately and it can lead to more tissue damage.
  5. Be resourceful. Cold-weather cyclists have found that by placing a piece of thin cardboard or even paper under the foot or wrapping your foot in a plastic bag before putting on a shoe can aid in keeping you warmer. Some of my female patients swear by wearing two layers of nylons before they put on an outer layer of socks.
  6. Be vigilant. You are at a much higher risk of cold-induced injuries if you smoke or have some type of skin disease that is precipitated by cold exposure, like Reynaud’s disease. So you need to be more vigilant.

James Mahoney is the associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery and a podiatrist at DMU Foot & Ankle.