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THE HEALTHY TRAVELER

Pain-Free Vacation Begins Feet First : Extra shoes, cotton-blend socks and simple medications help prevent the injuries that can quickly ruin a trip.

August 08, 1993|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Claudia Simms was hiking in a Southeast Asian jungle when she felt it. A sting so painful she had trouble walking. Fortunately, it turned out to be only a blister. But she learned her lesson from that experience.

Now Simms never embarks on a trip without moleskin, a kind of bandage readily available at drugstores. At the first hint of a blister, she places the adhesive-backed tape between skin and sock and walks on, knowing her feet are padded and protected.

As most travelers have discovered at one time or another, foot pain can quickly take the fun out of travel. It can be as minor as a blister or as serious as a stress fracture. And it can affect nearly your every move.

Exacerbating the situation, many of us start out with less-than-perfect feet. Eighty percent of adults have foot problems that usually go ignored, according to a recent survey by Dr. Scholl's, a company that sells foot-care products. Nearly half of adults surveyed reported foot fatigue. Throw in miles of walking on a typical vacation and uncomfortable tourists are bound to follow.

Consider just how much walking will be involved well in advance of a trip, suggested Glenn Gastwirth, a podiatrist and deputy executive director of the American Podiatric Medical Assn. in Bethesda, Md. "It's also important to know where the walking will be," Gastwirth said. Sidewalks, cobblestones, back roads?

This will help you determine which shoes to take. But it is generally wise to look for style that offers support, shock absorption and protection, Gastwirth said, with a sole that is "flexible but not flimsy." It should have a sole that bends at the ball of the foot but does not fold over to the heel. The shoe should also have adequate cushioning.

Take along two pairs of good walking shoes, preferably athletic-type shoes, said Suzanne Felson, a Seal Beach podiatrist. And alternate shoes, changing from one pair to another in the middle of the day, if possible. Switching shoes changes the pressure points on your feet, Felson said, and can reduce the risk of blisters, discomfort and swelling.

Sandals, especially in high-fashion styles, are not the best shoe choice for travelers with lots of walking on their agendas. Forget about appearance, Felson tells patients. Opt for comfort and support. High-heeled shoes can set you up for twisted ankles and foot pain.

Absorbent socks are just as important as good shoes, since they can help keep feet dry. The less sweat that accumulates around the feet, the fewer bacteria, Felson said, and the more remote the risk of infection.

Traditionally, a 100% cotton sock was considered best, but not any more. Cotton blends are generally thought to be better at wicking up moisture and keeping feet more comfortable, Felson said.

Experts recommend taking padded walking socks, available at sporting goods stores. They can increase shock absorption and foot comfort. Avoid bottom-of-the-line socks, which tend to bunchand stretch out. The very worst option, according to Felson, is nylon hosiery because it is not absorbent.

For feet that tend to perspire heavily, take along foot powder to keep them dry. "But use talcum powder sparingly," Felson suggested. Too much powder can collect between the toes where bacteria often accumulate. It can turn to paste and provide an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.

If you're not accustomed to extensive walking, get in reasonable condition before a trip, wearing the shoes and socks you plan to take along on vacation.

Swollen feet are a common problem during long-distance airplane flights. "Leave the shoes on but loosen the laces," Felson said. Swelling tends to be worse if your destination is a humid area. If you disembark an airplane with extremely swollen feet, try "contrast baths" once you arrive at your hotel room. The concept is to soak the feet in cool water, followed by warm. Submerge your feet in cool water for one minute, then in warm for three, using the sink and the tub or twin wash basins. "Start in cool water and end in cool," Felson says. "Do four cycles." Elevation of the feet can help reduce swelling, too.

If a blister forms despite your best efforts, first aid may be necessary. "Clean a needle (with alcohol)," Gastwirth suggested. "Lance the blister along the edges. Hold the needle parallel, not perpendicular," to prevent it from piecing the flesh below the blister.

Apply a little pressure to squeeze out the fluid, dab on some antibiotic cream such as Neosporin (polymyxin B sulfate-neomycin sulfate) and cover the area with a bandage.

"Don't get heroic and peel off the entire blister," Felson cautioned. "That can set you up for infection." Or, she added, leave the blister alone and it will deflate on its own.

Should a foot become extremely swollen or tender, see a foot specialist to rule out the possibility of a stress fracture, which can occur following repetitive jarring of a bone, Felson said.

To reduce the risk of athlete's foot and other foot infections, wear plastic or rubber thongs or perhaps a pair of Ultra Soles shoes, which take up no more than an eighth of an inch of luggage space and are sold in stores that specialize in travel gadgets.

Travelers with a history of foot fungus should also pack anti-fungal creams and sprays, although creams and solutions work better than sprays, said Felson who often recommends Micatin (miconazole) or Lotrimin (clotrimazole), now sold without a prescription. Contracting fungal infections of the feet is more likely, she noted, in moist environments such as the tropics and steam rooms, where fungi thrive.

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