Can you get sick from going barefoot?

Sometimes when I go barefoot, especially in winter or when it is raining, but even sometimes on nice days, people will approach me and warn me I'll get sick. I'll get a cold, get the flue, even get yeast infection. Well, it's not that bad. In fact, I'm hardly ever sick, and I used to be coughing and sneezing all winter before I went barefoot regularly. Yet I have missed just two days of work in my current job of more than years, where I often spent the entire day outside, barefoot (and that one brief cold wasn't even in winter!) Here is some more about barefooting and about catching the cold.

First of all, you can keep your body warm even if your feet are bare. The body is most concerned with keeping its core warm -head & upper body. That's where all your vital organs are. So if your temperature starts dropping there, the blood supply to your extremeties is restricted to conserve heat -you'll get cold feet & fingers. 'See, you should wear shoes!' people will say. But if you put on a heavy jacket, and cover your head, your body will have plenty of heat. So the circulation keeps going strong, and the blood serves as a sort of central heating system, keeping your feet warm while your actual body/core temperature does *not* drop.

It is this *core* temperature that is important in whether you'll be more susceptible to colds or not. I originally had this listed further down & in far less detail, however recently (fall 2005) some research was published that I feel I need to mention. The researchers chilled test subjects by immersing their feet in cold water, but measured their body temperature at the tip of their noses. When their *body* temperature had dropped, they were more likely to catch a cold.

A rather good article on this research is available at CNN.com. Anyone who has a CNN Pipeline subscription, be sure to check out the video as well! The video ends with the doctor explaining that since he's wearing a shawl & coat, his (uncovered) nose is no colder than it is in summer, and he is thus at no more risk from a cold. Similarly, the conclusion should be that if we wrap up warmly as described in the paragraph above, we are no more at risk from bare feet. Unfortunately, many newspapers/news sites have reported about this same research placing much more emphasis on the feet, like Yahoo's: 'Chilly feet can prompt common cold symptoms'. If you've read the CNN article & especially if you could watch the video, you'll know that is *not* the correct conclusion. They've mixed up the method used (cold feet) & the actual effect (cold core temperature/nose).

Your circulatory system plays an important role in our immune system! Not only can it help keep us warm (once again, see above), the while blood cells that fight off infections are delivered to the area of infection by the circulatory system. Waste products that are produced when the white blood cells have caught and dealt with any 'intruders' are, at least in part, removed from the area of infection by the circulatory system. A strong, healthy circulatory system is important for your health.

Now on to some info on other things that determine whether or not we will get a cold.

What happens when you catch a cold is, you come into contact with a virus or a bacteria that causes an illness. You come into contact with stuff like this *all the time*, some diseases are more aggressive and infectious than others, but you certainly don't get sick every time you come into contact with someone who's carrying something.

Then, your immune system will attack the 'invaders', and its success basically depends on several things.

  1. The strength of the immune system. Just like any part of your body, if it is used too little, it won't be very strong, it needs a little upkeep and 'training'. It is basically good to come into contact with some bacteria and other 'foreign bodies', because that stimulates the body to keep the immune system active. If you keep your house too clean, and avoid bacteria, dirt, dust etc too much, your body will keep your immune system at a very low 'maintenance level'. When you do come into contact with something, your body has to make a 'cold start' so to say, doesn't have as much white blood cells, doesn't have many antibodies, and by the time your body has its defenses up, the bacteria have a head start. Or your body can over-react to stuff that isn't really harmful to the body: allergies are more common in city children whose parents keep a very clean house than in kids who live out in the country, keep animals, play in the barn, etc. Back to topic, what this means is that bare feet, and all the stuff we walk through can help in this. We pick up small amounts of dirt, the occasional minor, superficial scrape, and those aren't just harmless, they can even be beneficial.
  2. The strength of the infection. Some bacteria and viruses are very nasty, if you come into contact with them they are likely to make you sick, even if you were strong and healthy. Others are less aggressive. Since most of the bugs that cause a cold aren't on the floor in particular, going barefoot doesn't really make a difference, but I included this one because it is of course a factor in getting sick or not.
  3. Whether the bacteria can enter our body. Our skin is designed to keep foreign stuff -whether large or small- out. So getting some dirt on our feet isn't immediately dangerous. Also I like to point out we come into contact with much more bacteria through our hands: think of all the items that are handled by many people like doorknobs, pushbuttons, money... and we use our hands to eat with (we may wash our hands before dinner but if you eat a snack on the road there's often no sink nearby) , we wipe hair out of our faces, wipe our nose, lean with our chin on our hands, thus transferring those bacteria to our mouth & nose. Few if any of us ever put the soles of our feet near our face!
  4. Streneous activity. Your immune system does need energy to work, and when your body is using the energy elsewhere, it has less to spend on fighting intruders. If you are over-stressed, don't get enough sleep, or are fighting off an infection already, or anything like that, you may be more susceptible to colds. Of course this does not mean *all* strain is bad; being tired may give a disease the edge, but that doesn't mean 'activity' or even strenuous activity like exercise, is 'bad'. Activity is *good*, only too much of it, or bad timing with exposure and/or other strains, can tip the scales the wrong way.
  5. Your *core* temperature. See above.

Other diseases like urinary tract infections are not triggered by bare feet either. There are many factors why someone gets these, people I know who wear bedroom slippers and never go barefoot even at home get them & I've never had one. Just like the common cold, it's a disease and there are many factors in getting sick with it, or not.

So if you're sick, take it easy with the cold and heavy activity. Don't stuff your body with more stuff that has to be expelled by the immune system. (I have smoker friends who, when sick, smoke twice as much as normal 'cause they are bored hanging out at home :( ). But if you feel the temperature is well within your limits, I dislike the 'wrapping up really warm' people often talk about. Just like I don't really like staying in bed all day and sleeping unless I'm sick so bad I can't do anything else. It seems to me that if I feel best, and get over small colds & stuff fastest, if I take it easy but keep up some activity. I'll get up late, but then putter some around the house, go out just briefly for some fresh air (maybe a quick store run to get something healthy like fruits, vitamins or meds :)). My experience is this is quite enough and still provides a little, careful, stimulation to the body, while avoiding the great, unnecessary strains. Personal mileage will vary wildly. Use common sense based on knowledge of your body works and based on knowledge of your own body. Learn to listen to your body. Know how much *your* body is used to cold, to being barefoot, to activity/exercise, to smoke/drink/etc and learn the difference between normal use, healthy exercise, and over-straining.

Sometimes people are concerned about tetanus. After all, don't we all know you get that from stepping on a rusty nail? Well, that's one kind of injury you can get tetanus from, however... it's not by far the only thing you can get it from, you can get tetanus from any deeper injury and even from smaller scratches. Animal scratches and bites (horses, but other animals too!), injuries while gardening, almost any injury on hands, legs or whereever that gets some dirt in it could, possibly, cause a tetanus infection. Fortunately, there is a very good vaccination against tetanus. Keep your tetanus shots up to date and you have little to worry about, whether you like to keep animals, work in your garden, go barefoot or do a dozen other things where you might get a small nick every once in a while.

Next, 'ringworm' isn't a worm. It's a fungus, you get it from skin contact with an infected person or animal, or from sharing (hand)towels. Athlete's foot is a type of ringworm, and it can spread when many people are barefoot in a small area. But, any fungal infection likes to grow in dark, moist places, and doesn't grow well in cooler, well-ventilated, light places, like on bare skin. Good ways to pick up atlete's foot: go to a gym, take off your shoes in a small changing room, pick up a few spores on the ground, then stick your feet into sneakers and work out, getting your feet all hot and sweaty! Then, take them off again to wash and dry them, step around in the shower area picking up a few more spores (or leave a few, they're pretty persistant and not easily washed off) and *stick your feet in a pair of enclosed shoes again* for the rest of the day... Then you create the perfect breeding ground for Athlete's foot. What happens when you are barefoot: you come in, step in a few spores, you work out and even though your foot gets warm while working out, the skin is still very well ventilated, will dry out almost immediately. Afterwards, you wash and dry your feet again, then walk out, allowing your feet to dry further. The fungus has little or no chance to get a hold on your cool, dry skin and will not cause an infection.

Real worms rarely spread through the skin. Roundworms mostly spread through ingestion. Once again, your hands are the biggest risk. You touch the doorknob of the public toilet, you eat a sandwich afterwards, or pick something from between your teeth... Uncooked food is also a source of infection, and of course unsafe drinking water. For kids, sandboxes, but again the worms don't enter through their feet! Most of us don't go around sticking our feet in our mouths :).

There are few worms that can enter unbroken skin, the hookworms, but these are mostly found in Southern Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. They used to be common in the South of the US but since sanitary conditions have been improved they're very rare there. It spreads through human feces. It's also easily treated, as are all of these worm infections. The nasty problems and complications you'll sometimes hear about or see pictures of are the untreated cases in third world countries, with little or no access to medicine. Untreated, worms can be nasty.

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