Skip to main contentSkip to accessibility services
Read about

Foot Redness Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Tooltip Icon.
Last updated October 20, 2021

Foot redness quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your redness.

Foot redness is usually caused by skin infections or fungal infections. The most common type of infections that cause red spots on feet are athlete's foot and cellulitis. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options for foot redness.

Foot redness quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your redness.

Take foot redness quiz

Foot redness symptoms

You count on your feet to do the hard work of walking, standing, running, climbing stairs and otherwise supporting your body throughout everyday life. The feet are composed of multiple complex parts including bone, skin, cartilage, and muscles which can all be affected in a manner that leads to foot redness. Fortunately, most causes of foot redness are benign and easily treatable, but some require evaluation and intervention by a medical professional.

Common characteristics of foot redness

Depending on the cause, foot redness can have varying characteristics including:

  • Sudden or gradual
  • Persistent (continuous) or intermittent (comes and goes)
  • Acute (sudden and temporary) or chronic (continuous or recurring)
  • Temporary or permanent
  • Tender or non-tender

Common accompanying symptoms

Foot redness can be associated with other symptoms including:

  • Pain or tenderness
  • Itchiness
  • Swelling
  • Skin that feels hot to the touch in the area of redness
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Difficulty walking
  • Joint pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling

What causes foot redness?

Your feet take a beating every day and can be particularly prone to injury. However, trauma is only one of the potential causes of foot redness. Because your feet are complicated structures with many moving parts, foot redness can also be due to inflammatory, environmental, and vascular causes. While some causes of foot redness are not serious and may resolve on their own, you should be examined by a healthcare professional who can identify the right diagnosis and the best course of treatment.

Inflammatory causes

Foot redness can be caused by inflammation which is the body’s normal response to injury or infection.

  • Infectious: Typically, skin redness with or without swelling signals an infection of which there are several types. Bacteria and fungus can enter through small breaks in the skin and cause cellulitis or inflammation of the skin. A skin infection that isn’t cleared up can lead to an abscess which is a pocket of pus that forms as your body tries to fight the infection. Sometimes a skin infection can reach deep into the foot and affect the ligaments, bones, and joints — especially when the bacteria or fungi are particularly aggressive. Those with diabetes are most prone to deeper and more aggressive infections of the foot.
  • Systemic: Some diseases or illnesses are systemic, meaning they can affect multiple parts of the body including the feet. Arthritis is a systemic disease that leads to inflammation of the joints which can cause foot redness. There are different types of arthritis with varying underlying causes including gout, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Environmental causes

Exposure to substances in the environment or weather can also lead to foot redness.

  • Allergens: Certain substances cause allergic reactions of the skin and exposure to them on the feet can lead to red, swollen and irritated skin. Some examples of these allergens include poison ivy/oak/sumac and nickel.
  • Irritants: Certain soaps, lotions, cosmetics, and other substances can also cause foot redness and irritation after prolonged skin contact.
  • Heat: Exposure to extreme heat can result in a burn that can cause foot redness that ranges from mild to severe.
  • Cold: Similarly, exposure to extreme cold can also result in foot redness that occurs as a response to damage to the skin and underlying soft tissue.

Vascular causes

The vascular system is composed of a network of veins and arteries that carry blood to and from the heart to supply your body with oxygen and nutrients. Dysfunction in the vascular system can also be a cause of foot redness.

  • Blocked vein: A blockage in a vein leading to the foot is sometimes called a deep vein thrombosis. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can also cause a blockage of blood flow leading to the calf as well as foot redness, swelling, warmth, and pain.
  • Blocked artery: A blockage in an artery resulting in decreased blood flow can result in foot redness and other symptoms in the affected foot including cramping pain with walking, coldness, numbness, tingling, and decreased hair growth.

Traumatic causes

Trauma to the foot can occur in many forms including injury to the bones, joints, ligaments, or tendons that make up the foot. The body’s reaction to trauma leads to symptoms which can include redness, swelling, pain, and tenderness in the area of injury.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Skin infection of the foot

An infection of the skin of the foot is almost always either fungal or bacterial. A fungal infection of the foot is called tinea pedis, or athlete's foot. It is caused by different types of dermatophyte fungus and is commonly found in damp places such as showers or locker room floors. A bacterial infection anywhere on the skin is called cellulitis if it extends under the skin. It can develop after a break in the skin allows bacteria to enter and begin growing. These bacteria are most often either Streptococcus or Staphylococcus, which are found throughout the environment.

Most susceptible are diabetic patients, since high blood sugar interferes with healing and wounds can easily become chronic and/or deeply infected. Diagnosis is made through physical examination by a medical provider.

Treatment for either a fungal or bacterial infection involves keeping the skin dry and clean at all times. A fungal infection is treated with topical and/or oral antifungal medications, while a bacterial infection will be treated with topical and/or antibiotic medications.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fever, foot pain, foot redness, warm red foot swelling, swollen ankle

Symptoms that always occur with skin infection of the foot: foot redness, foot pain, area of skin redness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Foot redness quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your redness.

Take foot redness quiz

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis means a skin reaction that is caused by directly touching an irritating substance, and not by an infectious agent such as a bacteria or virus.

Common causes are soap, bleach, cleaning agents, chemicals, and even water. Almost any substance can cause it with prolonged exposure. Contact dermatitis is not contagious.

Anyone who works with an irritating substance can contract the condition. Mechanics, beauticians, housekeepers, restaurant workers, and health care providers are all susceptible.

Symptoms include skin that feels swollen, stiff, and dry, and becomes cracked and blistered with painful open sores.

A medical provider can give the best advice on how to heal the skin and avoid further irritation. Self-treatment can make the problem worse if the wrong creams or ointments are used.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, to find out what substances the patient comes into contact with, and through physical examination of the damaged skin.

Treatment involves avoiding the irritating substance if possible. Otherwise, the person can use petroleum jelly on the hands underneath cotton and then rubber gloves.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: rash with well-defined border, itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, painful rash, red rash

Symptoms that always occur with irritant contact dermatitis: rash with well-defined border

Symptoms that never occur with irritant contact dermatitis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes

Urgency: Self-treatment

Septic arthritis

Septic arthritis is also called infectious arthritis. "Arthritis" simply means inflammation of a joint. In septic arthritis, the inflammation is caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. The most common agent is Staphylococcus aureus, or staph.

These agents reach the joints either from another infection in the body, or from a traumatic injury that contaminates the wounded joint.

Risk factors include existing joint disease or injury; a weakened immune system; and damaged skin. All of these things allow infectious agents to get a foothold.

Symptoms include severe pain in the affected joints, along with redness and swelling. The knees are most often affected but septic arthritis can occur in any joint.

The infection can damage cartilage and bone very quickly, so anyone with these symptoms should see a medical provider as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through a sample of the joint fluid; blood tests; and x-ray or CT scan of the joint.

Treatment involves draining the infected fluid from the joint, either with a needle or with surgery, followed by antibiotics.

Septic arthritis is also called infectious arthritis. "Arthritis" simply means inflammation of a joint. In septic arthritis, the inflammation is caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. The most common agent is Staphylococcus aureus, or staph.

These agents reach the joints either from another infection in the body, or from a traumatic injury that contaminates the wounded joint.

Risk factors include existing joint disease or injury; a weakened immune system; and damaged skin. All of these things allow infectious agents to get a foothold.

Symptoms include severe pain in the affected joints, along with redness and swelling. The knees are most often affected but septic arthritis can occur in any joint.

The infection can damage cartilage and bone very quickly, so anyone with these symptoms should see a medical provider as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through a sample of the joint fluid; blood tests; and x-ray or CT scan of the joint.

Treatment involves draining the infected fluid from the joint, either with a needle or with surgery, followed by antibiotics.

Necrotizing fasciitis of the leg

Necrotizing fasciitis is a potentially life threatening skin condition stemming from the infection of a wound or injury. If left untreated, it can spread to body parts surrounding the infection changing the color of the skin and degrading the tissue underneath. This can result in muscle, tissue or limb loss and a severe body-wide response to the infection.

You should visit your local emergency room where blood tests can be run and a consultation can be made by a skin specialist. If caught early, antibiotics, cleaning, and a stay in the hospital can help control the infection. If serious, additionally procedures may be required. It is important to get treatment due to the possibility of this becoming a serious, life-threatening condition.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, chills

Symptoms that always occur with necrotizing fasciitis of the leg: leg skin changes

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Gout

Gout is a form of arthritis that causes sudden pain, stiffness, and swelling in a joint. The big toe is often affected, but it can also happen in other joints. Sometimes, the joint gets hot and red. Gout is caused by uric acid crystals. Risk factors for gout include obesity, eating a lot of meat, drinking beer, age (older), sex (male), and family history.

You should see a healthcare professional to see if uric acid crystals have accumulated in the joint. Gout can be diagnosed based on symptoms, but it's also common to take a sample of joint fluid for testing. A physician can give you a prescription for anti-inflammatory medications and/ or pain medications. There are also medications to stop your body from making too much uric acid. Sometimes, a shot in the joint can help with symptoms also.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: swollen toes

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Frostnip of the lower limbs

Frostnip is damage of the outermost layers of the skin caused by exposure to the cold (at or below 32F or 0C). It is most commonly found in people doing leisurely activities like camping, hunting, or snow sports.

Those with suspected frostnip should have wet clothing removed. Rubbing affected areas worsens damage to the tissue. You should go to an urgent care. If rewarming can occur without chance of refreezing, it can be tried in the field. At urgent care, the doctors will guide you in gently re-warming the wounded area in 98-102F (37C-39C) water. Further, ibuprofen, antibiotics, and a tetanus shot may be necessary

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: foot pain, swollen foot, foot numbness, foot redness, limping

Symptoms that always occur with frostnip of the lower limbs: cold toe

Urgency: In-person visit

Deep vein thrombosis

A deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein deep in the body, usually in the lower leg or thigh. DVT can cause swelling, pain, and redness in the affected leg. Some of the risk factors for developing DVT include obesity, pregnancy, cancer, surgery, and previous history of blood clots.

You should consider calling your primary care or urgent care provider. Deep vein thrombosis can be evaluated with a review of your symptoms, a physical exam, and an ultrasound. A blood test may also be performed. Once diagnosed, DVT can be treated with blood-thinning medication, which is usually taken for three months.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fever, thigh pain, upper leg swelling, calf pain, butt pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Athlete's foot (tinea pedis)

Athlete's foot is a common fungal infection of the feet and/or toes. Warm, moist environments and community showering are common causes of this type of infection.

Over-the-counter treatments are quite effective at treating athlete's foot. They can come in the form of sprays, ointments, or even oral antifungals. Consider replacing shower footwear and bleaching any bathroom floors.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: foot redness, foot/toe itch, foot skin changes, spontaneous foot pain, peeling between the toes

Symptoms that always occur with athlete's foot (tinea pedis): foot redness

Symptoms that never occur with athlete's foot (tinea pedis): toe injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

Allergic contact dermatitis of the foot

Allergic contact dermatitis means the skin has touched something that provoked an allergic reaction, causing inflammation and irritation.

"Contact" means the allergic reaction came from touching something, not from consuming something. The first exposure to the substance sensitizes the immune system, and then the second exposure actually causes the symptoms.

The most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis are:

  • Nickel, a metal often used in belt buckles, the buttons on pants, and jewelry, including piercing jewelry.
  • Poison ivy.
  • Various types of perfumes, including those founds in soaps, fabric softeners, and detergents.
  • Of course, there are many more.

Symptoms include red, itching, scaling, flaking skin that may be painful due to the irritation and inflammation.

Diagnosis is made through first avoiding contact with any suspected substance, to see if the dermatitis clears. Patch testing can be done if the results are not certain.

Treatment involves fully avoiding the allergy-provoking substance and using topical steroid cream as prescribed. Cool compresses and calamine lotion can help to ease the discomfort.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: foot redness, foot/toe itch, scabbed area of the foot

Symptoms that always occur with allergic contact dermatitis of the foot: foot redness

Urgency: Self-treatment

Foot redness quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your redness.

Take foot redness quiz

Foot redness treatments and relief

At-home treatment

If your foot redness is persistent and/or particularly bothersome, you should be evaluated by a medical professional to determine the diagnosis and the best course of treatment. If foot redness is associated with irritation, infection, trauma or injury, some at-home treatments may help while you wait to be examined by a medical provider.

  • Warm or cold compress: Applying a warm compress can help soothe redness and inflammation from an infectious process and can help warm your foot if it has been exposed to prolonged cold temperature. Applying a cold compress or ice can reduce redness and irritation from inflammatory or irritating causes like allergens, irritants or heat exposure.
  • Over-the-counter medications: NSAID analgesics such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin can help reduce pain, swelling, and redness from injury, infection or arthritis because they work by reducing inflammation in your body. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can also help with pain and fever, but does not treat inflammation.
  • Fluid intake: If your foot redness is due to an infectious cause, increasing your fluid intake is critical in order to stay hydrated and keep your body strong enough to fight the infection, especially if you also have a fever.

When to see a doctor

If your foot redness is associated with the following symptoms or factors, you should seek medical attention in the coming days.

  • Persistent
  • Worsening
  • Spreading
  • Pain that is worsening or spreading
  • Fever
  • Chills

When it is an emergency

You should seek immediate medical attention if your foot redness is associated with any of the following symptoms or factors:

  • Quickly spreading or rapidly worsening redness
  • Severe, sudden, or worsening foot pain and/or swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • High or persistent fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Other conditions: If you also have a condition like diabetes, chronic kidney disease or if you are on chemotherapy or immunosuppressive medications for any reason

Prevention

Though many causes of foot redness cannot be prevented, some routine healthy habits may reduce the risk of some causes.

  • Overall health: Maintain a healthy diet along with exercise to minimize the risk of artery blockage.
  • Avoid known allergens or irritants
  • Use gentle soaps and lotions
  • Keep any cuts or injuries on the foot clean and dry
  • Avoid exposure to extreme heat or cold

FAQs about foot redness

Is foot redness permanent?

Typically, foot redness is temporary. Most causes of foot redness resolve either on their own or with simple treatments like antibiotics, antifungals, anti-allergy or anti-inflammatory medications. Some causes of foot redness, like artery blockage, may cause more long-lasting symptoms if not treated or prevented. Other diseases, like arthritis, can cause foot redness that comes and goes over time.

What is athlete’s foot?

Athlete’s foot is also called tinea pedis and is caused by a fungal infection that typically causes a red, scaly, itchy rash that usually begins between the toes but can spread beyond this area [5]. It can be caused by exposure to the fungus in damp areas such as showers, swimming pools, and locker room floors or sweaty feet being confined to tight shoes. It can be treated over-the-counter with anti-fungal medication but may not go away or may occur again until it is treated with stronger anti-fungal medications prescribed by a medical professional.

What’s the difference between frostnip and frostbite?

Both frostnip and frostbite are forms of injury to the skin and underlying tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold. Frostnip is milder and does not cause permanent skin damage and is characterized by cold and red skin. With continued exposure to the cold, your skin will become numb, pale and hard, or waxy. Frostnip can usually be treated by re-warming but frostbite requires medical attention to avoid permanent damage to the skin, tissues, muscle, and bone of the affected area.

Is my foot numbness life-threatening?

Foot redness is typically not life-threatening but can be depending on the cause. If your foot has become cold in comparison to its partner, you have lost feeling, or you are unable to move your foot, these are signs of something serious and you should be urgently evaluated by a medical professional. These symptoms indicate potential damage to the blood vessels that supply your foot or damage to the nerves that allow you to sense or move your foot. Damage to blood vessels can lead to tissue death, requiring amputation, whereas damage to the nerves in the foot can lead to a permanent inability to use the foot. Signs of severe infection include high fever and severe or rapidly spreading pain, swelling, or redness of the foot. If you have these symptoms you should immediately seek medical attention for treatment of the infection before it spreads further or enters the bloodstream. Finally, swelling in the foot should be evaluated urgently if you also have difficulty breathing or pain in the calf as these may be signs of a blood clot in the leg.

Will my foot redness spread?

It depends on the cause. Foot redness caused by bacterial or fungal infection can spread beyond the initial area of infection if not treated. Foot redness caused by blockage of arteries or veins can also spread as the blockage gets worse or if a clot that has formed in the vein gets larger. Foot redness caused by exposure to an allergen or irritant typically is limited only to where there was skin contact with the offending agent.

Questions your doctor may ask about foot redness

  • Do you have a rash?
  • Is the red area flaky and rough to the touch?
  • Are there small cracks between your toes?
  • Did your symptoms start after you were exposed to glues, fragrances, preservatives, hair dyes, soaps, detergents, or other common household chemicals?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Share your story
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
Read full bio

Was this article helpful?

67 people found this helpful
Tooltip Icon.

References

  1. Skin and soft tissue infections. American Family Physician. 2015;92(6):online. AAFP Link
  2. Cellulitis. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated June 6, 2018. MedlinePlus Link
  3. Abscess. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated June 6, 2018. MedlinePlus Link
  4. Arthritis of the Foot and Ankle. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Published March 2015. OrthoInfo Link
  5. Athlete’s Foot. American Podiatric Medical Association. APMA Link