It's the moment every athlete dreads: You're in the groove, enjoying your workout, and suddenly, a blister strikes.
Most of us have experienced minor discomfort or disruptions during exercise at one point or another. But being proactive and knowing how to treat blisters before they get too painful—and knowing how to prevent blisters from happening in the first place—can help keep your fitness routine on track.
We asked three experts—a sports medicine physician, a podiatrist, and a dermatologist—to share their best tips for blister prevention and treatment during runs and other workouts to help beginner and advanced exercisers alike prevent discomfort.
What Are Blisters?
Blisters come in many shapes, sizes, and types, including blood, heat, and friction blisters:
Blood blisters form after something pinches your skin, like after you pinch your finger in a door. (Ouch!)
Heat blisters occur when you come into contact with something hot (like a curling iron or hot pan), or may result from sunburn.
Friction blisters occur when the first and second layers of your skin separate due to rubbing or friction, such as when your ankle rubs against the back of your shoe all day. Fluid then fills the space between these two top skin layers, and you can end up with a friction blister, explains Tracy Zaslow, MD, a board-certified pediatric and adult sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles and team physician for the Angel City Football Club and the LA Galaxy.
In this article, we’ll focus on friction blisters, as that type of blister tends to go hand in hand with physical activity.
Why Do Blisters Form and Where Do They Usually Develop?
Friction blisters often form on the soles of your feet and palms of your hands, but Dr. Zaslow says they can also form in places where sporting equipment or clothing rubs the skin, such as where the buttocks rub against the bike seat. That’s because a warm, moist environment combined with friction can lead to a blister.
A friction blister often wreaks havoc after wearing poorly fitted shoes, participating in activities that involve repetitive movement like running or various sports, or using equipment that causes continuous rubbing against the skin, such as bike handlebars or weights. Blisters can also spring up after you exercise in hot conditions, as heat can exacerbate the effects of friction on the skin.
And if you like to exercise without socks, be prepared for potential blisters, as bare, sweaty skin and shoes aren’t a good match. Ideally, opt for socks made from moisture-wicking materials to keep your feet dry, and change them if they become damp during activities.
How to Prevent Blisters
While most of us will get a few blisters during our fitness journeys (it happens!), taking steps to prevent them can minimize their size or even keep them from forming in the first place.
Here are some tips on how to prevent blisters and keep your feet workout-ready:
1. Wear the Right Shoes
The first step in preventing friction blisters is to wear proper-fitting shoes and gear, says Bradley Schaeffer, DPM, a board-certified podiatrist and foot surgeon at Central Park SOLE and star of TLC's My Feet Are Killing Me. “You must have shoes that fit and are not too tight or too loose,” he says. “Improper-fitting shoes will create rubbing or friction that will irritate the top layer of your skin, creating a painful blister.”
If wearing one pair of socks doesn’t feel like enough to achieve a good fit, try wearing two pairs to protect your skin, especially when you’re breaking in new shoes. Speaking of new kicks, Dr. Zaslow recommends runners keep jogs short to prevent blisters while they’re getting used to a new pair of shoes.
2. Consider Your Socks and Insoles
Dr. Schaeffer says runners and other athletes may benefit from insoles for additional foot support and blister prevention. “Once you’re supported and wearing proper-fitting shoes, then blisters can be avoided,” he says.
Socks are another key component in blister prevention and treatment. Dr. Schaeffer notes that there are socks built with supportive cushioning that are great picks for runners and other athletes.
Equally important to putting on the right shoes and socks is knowing when to take them off. Dr. Schaeffer stresses the importance of changing your socks and shoes after a long run (or another workout), as staying in sweaty shoes for too long will harbor bacteria and fungus that can create an infection.
3. Be Proactive With Coverage
If you have a long run, ride, or row ahead of you that usually results in blisters in certain spots, you can try protecting those areas before your workout begins to get ahead of the issue. Amy Huang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Medical Offices of Manhattan, recommends applying blister plasters at chafing points or hot spots.
4. Target Problem Areas
Pay special attention to problem areas such as the feet, inner thighs, or nipples, and consider using adhesive moleskin padding or other soft bandages to prevent blisters. Dr. Zaslow says you can also apply powder or petroleum jelly to problem areas to help reduce friction when your skin rubs together or against clothing.
5. Stop Activity If You Feel Pain
If you start to experience pain or discomfort, or if your skin turns red, Dr. Zaslow says to stop your activity immediately and address the area by changing the fabric and applying moleskin padding, soft bandages, or petroleum jelly. Otherwise, you may get a blister.
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How to Treat Blisters
So, you tried to prevent a pesky blister from rearing its ugly head, but it still found a way to form. Now what?
Here are a few things to keep in mind when treating blisters, according to experts:
1. Keep It Clean and Let It Heal
If you get a friction blister, Dr. Zaslow says the goal is to keep it from getting bigger and to avoid infection. Your best plan of action for small, unbroken blisters is to leave them alone, and they should heal naturally on their own, she says.
2. Try Not to Pop Your Blister
While you may be tempted to pop your blister, Dr. Schaeffer advises against this approach, as it’ll turn into an open wound that can get infected. Blisters act like our bodies’ natural bandages, but once they get popped, bacteria can get inside and create a bigger problem.
If you feel like your blister needs to pop, Dr. Schaeffer recommends consulting a podiatrist or other healthcare professional first. Dr. Zaslow agrees: “Improperly draining a blister may result in further damage or infection,” she says.
If your blister breaks on its own, experts from Harvard Medical School recommend carefully washing the area with soap and water before patting dry. Try to keep the blister’s “roof” intact for additional protection, and keep the area covered with a clean bandage.
3. Avoid Irritating Your Blister Further
Most blisters heal on their own within one to two weeks, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). In the meantime, Dr. Zaslow recommends avoiding activities that aggravate the area and allowing them to heal. “It’s important to provide blisters the opportunity to heal,” Dr. Schaeffer adds. Cross-training is a great way to stay fit without causing further injury to the area impacted by the blister.
4. Protect Your Blisters When Irritation Is Inevitable
If you have a race, competition, or other activity that you must participate in, Dr. Zaslow recommends trying to cover the blister with moleskin or a soft bandage to protect the area and prevent further friction or chaffing.
Dr. Huang recommends applying hydrocolloid bandages to blisters and wearing thicker socks that decrease friction. Runners can also wear insoles and attach a moleskin to the inside of their shoes at pressure points to further reduce friction, she says.
Dr. Zaslow also says you can create a protective “donut bandage” by cutting the padding into a donut shape with a hole in the middle. Once you have the right size hole, place the padding around the blister and cover the exposed skin with a bandage.
When to Talk to Your Doctor About Blisters
While the majority of blisters will heal on their own with proper care, some blisters may call for a trip to the doctor—namely, if they appear infected, warm, or swollen, Dr. Huang says. Any redness, pus, or increased pain also signals it’s time to speak with a healthcare professional, according to the AAD.
If a blister is large and painful, Dr. Zaslow says you can see a trained professional (like a certified athletic trainer or physician) to consider draining the blister—but again, don’t try to pop the blister without expert consultation first.
Friction blisters can certainly put a damper on your running routine or other exercise plans, but knowing how to identify them, how to treat blisters when they pop up, and how to prevent blisters from happening in the first place can ensure you stay focused on your fitness goals.
While most blisters will heal on their own with proper care, some may become infected or require an expert touch to relieve some of the fluid and discomfort. When in doubt, leave the popping and draining to your doctor, a podiatrist, a dermatologist, or another trained healthcare provider.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.