A blister–OUCH! Such an inconvenience! You have planned, prepared, and packed for the big trip. Then…first day out, you start to feel a “rub” in your shoe. At first, you do nothing, maybe adjust your socks or retie your shoe. It’s not painful, more of an annoyance.
Until it’s not anymore. It hurts. You realize that you can’t ignore the matter, so you sit down and have a peek. Sure enough, a blister…the sooner you can treat it, the better.
When I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, I saw some monstrous blisters and bleeding feet, especially during the first few days on the path. People would continue to walk all day on injured feet, instead of stopping to take care of themselves. A bit of first aid on the spot could have done the job and made their experience much, much happier.
So, what exactly is a blister?
A blister forms when there is friction between the foot and the shoe, or the sock and the shoe. Moisture can contribute to its formation, too. The body responds to the irritation by creating a “bubble” of fluid that acts as a cushion to protect the injured area. It’s brilliant, really. And with proper attention, the blister can continue to do its job…then go away after a few days.
For a traveler, attention to the feet is essential. All that walking and standing increase the risk of developing a blister on the soles, toes, and heels. But sitting around waiting for it to heal is not an option for most people.
First Aid, FIRST!
The very first moment you sense any rubbing or pressure when you walk, stop. You may be able to prevent a blister with early attention.
- Take off your shoe(s) and inspect the area that you notice.
- Is it red? Does it feel tender? Is your foot moist?
- Dry the foot. Apply a gelatin patch, such as Compeed or a piece of moleskin. At the very least, a bandaid big enough to cover the area.
If it’s a blister, try this
If a blister has formed, try to keep the top layer of skin intact. It protects the tender layer underneath and keeps infection away.
- Use a thin layer of antibiotic ointment, such as Neosporin, to cover the area. This also prevents the blister from drying out and cracking.
- Cover the blister with padding, such as gauze, moleskin, or a bandaid. Compeed blister patches are excellent, too.
- You can even use duct tape to prevent more friction! Wrap it all the way around the foot to keep it secure all day. I always carry a small roll of duct tape–very handy!
What if the blister breaks or bleeds?
Now you really have to step up the treatment. Not only is the area at risk for infection, it’s painful. But don’t despair. Wash your hands well and do this:
- Don’t take off the skin flap that was covering the blister!
- Wash the blister area with soap and water. Pat dry.
- Apply a layer of antibiotic ointment.
- If possible, replace the skin flap over the area.
- Use sterile gauze to cover the injury.
- Secure it with tape…yes, even duct tape!
The “pilgrim” way to treat a blister
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an effective way to treat a blister before it has broken. On the Camino, this was quite popular. I’ve heard that the Army uses this method, too, after its famous 20-mile marches. It’s unconventional, but maintains the blister, while removing the fluid. Most people find it allows them to continue walking with little pain.
You will need:
- A small package of needles and white cotton thread (or pre-threaded needles) are useful for treating blisters. (Many pilgrims include these items when they prepare for the trip.)
- Antibiotic ointment
- A covering, such as a bandaid.
When you’re ready:
- Wash your hands and the blister with soap and water. Dry.
- Use rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer to clean the area again.
- Sterilize the needle with a flame. At the least, use rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer.
- Thread the needle with white thread about 4 inches long.
- Pass the needle straight through the blister, leaving some thread at the starting point.
- Take the needle off and leave the thread. Trim it to just a little longer than the blister.
- Cover the area with gauze and secure it with bandaids or tape.
- Keep the area dry for at least 24 hours.
The blister is still intact and protected by skin. The thread allows the fluid to drain out slowly. After a day or two, you can just remove the thread.
(Disclaimer: I’m just reporting how to do this. This is a tip, not medical advice.)
The very best method? Prevention!
Of course, the best way to care for a blister is to never get one. Prevention starts by choosing comfortable shoes and wearing them to be sure they fit properly. Never go straight from the shoe store to your trip, even if the shoes felt fine when you tried them on. And never expect that a spot that rubs will disappear.
Good socks are also essential. Wool socks protect and cushion. Don’t bring cotton socks; they keep moisture in, which softens skin and makes blisters more likely. Silk liner socks are terrific and prevent friction. The right socks can be expensive, but so is your trip. Don’t skimp on anything related to your feet.
Protecting the skin is important, too. Some people like to use powder before putting on socks. Others, including me, prefer to moisturize with a thin layer of petroleum jelly. I also happen to know which parts of my feet tend to rub, so I proactively use duct tape (again!) before I put on shoes and socks. By doing this, I walked all 500 miles without a worry.
Other useful resources:
8 OTC Medications Every Traveler Should Pack
The Camino de Santiago: How I Started
Follow the Yellow Arrows: A Guide to Planning and Packing for the Camino de Santiago