Foot Redness Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions
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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 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
- Skin that feels hot to the touch in the area of redness
- Difficulty walking
- Joint pain
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Allergic contact dermatitis of the foot
Allergic contact dermatitis is a condition in which the skin becomes irritated and inflamed following physical contact with an allergen. Common products known to cause allergic dermatitis include plants, metals, soap, fragrance, and cosmetics.
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
Gout is a form of arthritis that causes sudden pain, stiffness, and swelling in a joint. The big toe is often affected.
Top Symptoms: swollen toes
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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 is Staphylococcus aureus or staph. These agents reach the joints either from ...
Deep vein thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that forms in a vein deep in the body. Most deep vein clots occur in the lower leg or thigh.
Top Symptoms: fever, thigh pain, upper leg swelling, calf pain, butt pain
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
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.
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
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.
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
Foot redness treatments and relief
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.
- Pain that is worsening or spreading
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
- 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
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 . 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.
- Skin and soft tissue infections. American Family Physician. 2015;92(6):online. AAFP Link
- Cellulitis. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated June 6, 2018. MedlinePlus Link
- Abscess. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated June 6, 2018. MedlinePlus Link
- Arthritis of the Foot and Ankle. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Published March 2015. OrthoInfo Link
- Athlete’s Foot. American Podiatric Medical Association. APMA Link