Calluses, Corns, Ingrown Toenails and Other Everyday Foot Problems Can Lead to Deadly Infection

I was surprised when my cousin showed up at a recent party on crutches — and even more so when he told me why. His foot had become infected with MRSA, the aggressive and methicillin-resistant Staph. bacterium that has repeatedly been in the news over the past few years. And his problem had started with an ingrown toenail!

This is actually not an uncommon scenario, I’ve learned. According to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, MRSA infection is an increasing threat among people with foot problems like my cousin’s — problems that seem only annoying rather than dangerous. Other common foot conditions that can lead to MRSA infection include dry, cracked skin on the heels (especially in these cold winter months), eczema, psoriasis and athlete’s foot.

Block that Bacteria

To discuss how best to protect the feet, I called podiatrist Yi Chan, DPM, who has a private practice in West Orange, New Jersey. As you may already know, MRSA is now extremely common in our environment and exists on the skin of about one-third of the population. It becomes harmful only when a break in the skin provides an opportunity for it to enter the bloodstream. But then it can be very harmful, leading to blood-borne infections, multiple organ failure and even death. Therefore, Dr. Chan said, if you have any foot injury or irritation, act immediately to prevent bacteria from entering via a break in the skin.

He advises treating any problems affecting the skin on your feet by washing with soap and water or, at least, rinsing the area thoroughly with running water as soon as you can, using whatever is most accessible — for instance, if you’re hiking and get a blister, pour bottled drinking water on it if nothing else is available. This will remove any MRSA-infested debris that might have entered the area, he explains. For further protection, use Bacitracin and cover with a bandage for several days until the skin closes over.

What’s even more challenging about the feet is that an infection also can begin in a place where you aren’t aware of a skin break, such as in a callus or corn. It’s crucial, therefore, to be vigilant about any symptoms of infection. Dr. Chan says to be alert to these signs that may indicate an infected foot…

  • redness in the area
  • swelling
  • skin that feels warm to the touch
  • pain
  • pus
  • fever
  • difficulty moving, such as a toe that won’t wiggle as usual.

Any of these symptoms may indicate that treatment is needed right away, since MRSA and many other infections can move very fast. Call your doctor, and if you cannot get in that day, Dr. Chan says to go to an urgent-care center or, if no other option is available, the ER. The area will be drained by a health-care professional who may also give you a prescription for antibiotics. Tread carefully… MRSA is a serious matter.