Having smelly feet can be an embarrassing and uncomfortable problem. But is it possible for bad foot odor to spread to other people? Can foot odor actually be contagious? Let’s take a closer look at what causes stinky feet and whether the smell can be transmitted.
What Causes Smelly Feet?
There are a few key factors that can cause excessive foot odor:
- Sweat – Feet contain more sweat glands per square inch than any other part of the body. When feet sweat, the moisture gets trapped inside shoes and socks, creating an ideal environment for bacteria to multiply.
- Bacteria – There are over 250,000 sweat glands in the feet that produce perspiration that contains nutrients used by bacteria. Bacteria thrive in the warm, dark, and moist environment inside shoes and socks. As they feed on sweat, they produce isovaleric acid, causing unpleasant foot odor.
- Fungal infections – Fungal infections like athlete’s foot can also contribute to foot odor. The infection causes scaling and peeling between the toes which emits a foul smell.
- Poor hygiene – Not washing and drying feet properly, wearing damp socks and shoes, and wearing the same shoes day after day allows sweat and bacteria to build up. This increases odor.
- Hyperhidrosis – A condition characterized by excessive sweating in the feet, palms, underarms, or other areas can make foot odor worse.
- Other factors – Open sores or wounds on the feet, certain medications, diseases like diabetes, may also intensify foot odor.
The Culprits Behind Foot Odor
The main culprits behind foot odor are bacteria such as Micrococcus sedentarius, Kytococcus sedentarius, and Corynebacterium xerosis. These bacteria consume sweat secreted from the sweat glands on the feet and multiply rapidly in the dark, moist environment inside shoes.
As the bacteria grow, they produce isovaleric acid as a byproduct, which is the main cause of unpleasant foot odor. Other bacteria found on the skin and in shoes can also contribute to the smell.
In some cases, yeast or fungal overgrowth on the feet can add to the odor. Fungal infections break down the keratin protein that makes up the skin on the feet, allowing odors to be released.
Can Foot Odor Be Spread to Other People?
The short answer is no, foot odor itself cannot be spread from person to person like a virus or bacteria can. The bacteria and fungi that cause foot odor thrive on the skin of the individual affected.
While the odor itself is not contagious, it is possible that direct contact with the feet or shoes of someone with very sweaty feet could potentially transfer some bacteria. However, those bacteria would then need the right conditions to multiply and produce foot odor on the new person.
It’s highly unlikely that just walking past someone with smelly feet will transfer enough bacteria to make your own feet start smelling. The bacteria need ideal conditions like warmth, moisture, darkness and lack of air circulation to produce significant odor.
So while the smell may spread throughout a room, the factors causing it are not contagious. You can’t “catch” smelly feet from someone else without direct contact or shared shoes or socks.
Can Foot Fungal Infections Spread to Others?
Foot fungal infections like athlete’s foot can be contagious through direct contact or by sharing things like towels, socks, and shoes. Contact with surfaces like pool decks, public showers and locker rooms may also spread fungi.
When someone with athlete’s foot wears shoes or socks, fungi can be left behind. If someone else then wears the contaminated shoes or socks, they can pick up the infection.
These fungi thrive in warm, moist environments like inside shoes. Once transferred to suitable conditions on another person’s feet, the infection can then spread further on the new person and potentially cause foot odor.
So while foot odor itself is not contagious, it is possible to transmit foot fungi to other people in some situations. Practicing good foot hygiene and not sharing shoes, socks or towels can help prevent transmitting fungal infections.
How to Prevent Bad Foot Odor
While you can’t “catch” foot odor from others, that doesn’t mean you want your own feet to smell. Here are some tips to help prevent and reduce foot odor:
- Wash feet daily – Use antibacterial soap and wash between toes to remove bacteria and sweat. Dry feet thoroughly, especially between toes.
- Rotate shoes – Alternate pairs of shoes to allow them to fully dry between uses to prevent bacteria growth.
- Choose breathable shoes & socks – Opt for leather, mesh or canvas shoes and cotton or wool socks to allow ventilation and absorption of sweat. Avoid plastic or rubber shoes.
- Use foot powder – Powders can help absorb sweat and reduce moisture in shoes. Look for ones with antibacterial ingredients.
- Treat fungal infections – Use antifungal creams or sprays as directed to clear up any fungal overgrowth causing odor.
- Soak feet – Occasional foot soaks using antibacterial solutions can help kill bacteria.
- Exfoliate feet – Use a foot scrubber or pumice stone to remove dead skin cells where bacteria can thrive.
- Apply antiperspirant – Applying an antiperspirant to clean feet before bed can reduce sweat at the source.
- Wear clean socks – Bacteria multiply quickly in damp socks so change them frequently.
- Consider shoe inserts – Charcoal, cedar wood or other odor-absorbing shoe inserts can help soak up excess moisture and odor.
- See a doctor – If excessive foot sweating, fungal infections, or odor persist despite good hygiene, see a podiatrist or dermatologist.
With some diligent foot care, you can keep odor at bay. Be sure to follow good hygiene practices, wear breathable shoes and socks, and treat any underlying causes of excess sweat or fungal infections promptly. While foot odor itself isn’t contagious, preventing it can keep your feet fresh.