From toenail discoloration to flaky skin, find out what these common foot problems may reveal about your health
Take a moment to thank your feet for carrying you around all day long. These incredible appendages may spend most of their time hidden away in shoes and socks, but did you know that your feet are a good barometer of your overall health? Dr. Ernest L. Isaacson, a New York City–based podiatrist, reveals five foot-related problems that may be telltale signs of other health issues you should address.
Loss of hair. Yes, there’s hair on your feet! Some of us have more than others, but everyone has some fine hairs. While it’s common to lose hair on the feet and legs as part of the aging process, it could also be a sign of peripheral arterial disease, or PAD, a buildup of plaque and cholesterol in the peripheral arteries (those that lead to your extremities). “If you have severe PAD in your feet, you’ll also have other signs of it in your feet, such as thickening of toenails, cold skin, pain when you walk,” all of which should prompt you to get immediate medical attention, says Isaacson.
Flaky skin. Typically, itchy, flaky skin doesn’t point to anything more worrisome than garden-variety dryness as a result of hot showers or harsh soaps—which means it can be eased with a slathering of good moisturizer or lotion. That said, says Isaacson, flaky skin could be a symptom of psoriasis or eczema, which would require a visit to a doctor for topical medications. If you experience severe dry skin accompanied by other foot issues such as cold skin or pain when walking, it could indicate that you are suffering from PAD.
Numbness in the feet. This should be investigated by a doctor, says Isaacson, especially if both feet are numb. “If you have diabetes, numbness could be a sign of neuropathy, a complication of the condition that can be very serious.” Other causes of numbness are normally temporary—sitting in a constricted position for too long, for instance, or the well-documented “elliptical numbness” that sometimes happens when you use an elliptical machine at the gym.
Toenail abnormalities. Lots of things can cause discoloration of the toenails, such as stubbing your toe, repeatedly jamming it against the inside of your running shoes, or dropping a heavy object on it. Even nail polish can leave a residue that makes your toenails look like something is wrong when actually there is nothing to worry about. The most common cause of toenail discoloration is a fungal infection. A podiatrist can give you a diagnosis by taking a tiny sample of the nail to find out if you have a fungus, which is treatable with pills, a topical medication, or a laser.
Swelling in your feet or ankles. Swollen lower extremities are often caused by benign factors, but they can also be a sign of something very serious: heart failure. If your heart isn’t pumping effectively, blood can back up and pool in the feet and ankles, causing them to swell. If you can’t attribute swelling in your feet to an obvious cause (it’s common during pregnancy, for example), see a doctor.