There's an unexplainable bliss that comes from buying a new pair of shoes. Before you even get the box scanned at the till, you've already dreamed up two outfits that will complement your purchase perfectly, ignoring the fact that you told yourself "no more shoes" the last time you organised your wardrobe. Then, there's the joyous feeling the first time you put them on; a look in the mirror only confirms that you made a smart purchase. But your new fashion find can go from sweet gratification to no. 1 enemy in a matter of hours, thanks to the appearance of a stinging, swollen blister.
Blisters, which are small pockets of fluid that form on the outer layers of the skin, can happen to anyone at any time. Sometimes it can be painful, and just like the pesky white spot on your face, you can be tempted to pop a blister as a quick fix. But is that really the best move? We talked to the pros to see what is the best way to handle a blister.
What are blisters?
A blister is a pocket of fluid that forms to protect the skin after some type of damage has occurred. "Blisters are the body's way of forming a bandage," dermatologist Hadley King, MD, tells Refinery29. "The blister serves as a biological dressing, preventing germs from entering, and the fluid inside works to prevent further damage to the skin below and to allow the skin to heal."
While many might believe that friction blisters — like the ones on your foot — are the only type, there are actually many different kinds, including blisters caused by extreme temperatures, fever, and blood (which happen when bodily fluids get trapped beneath the skin). "Friction blisters and blisters from burns caused by cooking or hair tools are the most common blisters I see," says Dr. King. Bad reactions to medication or skin infections can also cause blistering.
Determining what kind of blister you have is all about using context clues, says Dr. King. So, if you're sick with a fever, then it's likely that you have a fever blister, which usually happens around the lips, chin, or cheeks. If you just tried on a new pair of shoes, then you can assume it's a friction blister. And if you forgot to wear oven mittens when dealing with a hot baking sheet, well, that's likely a burn blister. Most times, blisters will not need medical attention, unless it's infected, says dermatopathologist Gretchen Frieling, MD.
Should you pop a blister?
The answer is straightforward: No. Ultimately, blisters are guarding your skin against damage and working as a protective layer. Dr. Frieling says that puncturing it could actually do more harm than good. "Popping one will only irritate it and make the pain worse, especially if it becomes infected," she says.
If you still do decide to pop the blister, both dermatologists recommend using a sterilised needle to release the fluid (sterilising can be done by rinsing the needle in alcohol) and gently puncturing the blister to create a small hole. The fluid will drain on its own so you don't have to squeeze. "Do not remove the roof of the blister because the roof will help the healing process," advises Dr. King. Just apply an ointment or petrolatum and loosely cover with a clean, dry plaster. If the blister accidentally pops on its own, Dr. Frieling says to wash the area with warm water and gentle soap — no alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or iodine — before applying ointment and a Band-Aid.
How do I know if my blister is infected?
If you've popped your blister, the best way to know if your blister is infected is from the colour of the fluid. It should always be clear. "If the fluid is white or yellow, the blister may be infected and needs medical attention," says Dr. Frieling. If the blister has not been popped, it may be hard to distinguish if it's infected or not, but there are signs that can still help determine if that's the case, including warmth in the area, a foul smell, pus, or swelling. You should also see a professional immediately if the blister doesn't seem to be healing on its own because even a small infection can spread to other areas of the body. Cellulitis, which is a potentially serious skin infection that spreads rapidly, can also develop. You'll know its cellulitis if you see a red streak moving up your leg, and you should seek emergency attention.
In severe cases, sepsis can occur, which is the body reacting to an infection. The body normally releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight infections, but with sepsis, the chemicals are out of balance and can lead to tissue damage or organ failure. "This can lead to septic shock, and can be fatal about half the time," says Dr. Frieling. The best way to avoid this risk is by visiting a professional if your blister is not getting better or seems infected.
The final verdict: It's best to leave a blister alone and let it heal on its own. If it's agitating you, both dermatologists recommend applying a donut-shaped moleskin (also known as a callus or corn cushion) on top, avoiding friction or pressure until it heals. Most blisters go away in one to two weeks, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. And to avoid blisters overall, it's best to avoid shoes that rub the heels or pinch the toes. However, if you have to have that amazing pair of strappy sandals, invest in blister protection products before you wear them. We get it: Sometimes cute shoes are too good to pass up, despite the potential pain.