This article will look at some of the most common causes of red toes. We also describe treatments and offer some tips for prevention.
Chilblains may appear on the skin as a result of exposure to cold weather.
Image credit: Sapp, 2019
Chilblains develop shortly after exposure to the cold, and they often become more visible if a person warms the skin quickly, for example, in front of a fire or heater.
The exact cause is unknown, but they may occur when small blood vessels are warmed faster than the larger vessels can handle. This can cause blood to leak into the soft tissues.
They look like red or purple blotches and tend to appear on the toes, fingers, nose, cheeks, or ears. Chilblains can turn into blisters or ulcers over time, and these can be very painful.
Chilblains are more common in children and young and middle-aged women. The following factors also increase a person’s risk of developing them:
- poor circulation
- hormonal changes
- connective tissue problems
- some bone marrow disorders
- Raynaud’s disease
Raynaud’s disease, or Raynaud’s phenomenon, is a rare condition that affects the blood vessels in the fingers and toes.
When someone with this condition is cold or stressed, their blood vessels can narrow. This keeps blood from reaching the surface of the skin in some areas of the body, and these areas may turn white or blue. The skin tends to turn red and tingle as the blood returns.
Experts do not know what causes Raynaud’s disease. It is more common in women and people over the age of 30. In severe cases, the loss of blood flow can lead to sores or death of the affected tissue, requiring amputation.
People with Raynaud’s disease are also more likely to develop chilblains after being exposed to cold weather.
A person with low arches, flat feet, or loose joints may develop bunions.
A bunion is a fluid-filled sac that surrounds and cushions the joint of the big toe. It develops when the bone that connects the toe to the foot turns outward. This pushes the big toe inward, toward the other toes, and makes the joint jut out.
Most shoes put pressure on bunions. Over time, the joint can swell and become red, stiff, and painful.
Bunions tend to run in families because foot shape is hereditary. People with low arches, flat feet, or loose joints are more likely to develop them.
For those at risk, wearing narrow or high-heeled shoes can prompt the development of bunions or make them worse.
They are more common in females and more symptomatic in people who spend a lot of time on their feet.
Skin and nail infections can cause redness, swelling, and pain in the toes. Bacteria or fungi are usually responsible for these infections.
Broken, or fractured, toes
A traumatic fracture, also called an acute fracture, results from an impact or direct blow. This injury can occur when a person drops something heavy on the area or severely stubs their toe.
Signs of a traumatic fracture include:
- a sound at the time of the injury
- pain at the point of impact that may last for a few hours
- a crooked or abnormal appearance to the toe
- redness followed by bruising and swelling the next day
Stress fractures, or hairline fractures, do not usually cause bruising or redness. They are tiny breaks in the bone, and repetitive stress is usually the cause. They often affect athletes and people who have osteoporosis or foot abnormalities.
When red toes require treatment, the best choice depends on the cause of the discoloration:
Over-the-counter steroid creams can treat chilblains. A person can find these in drugstores or choose between brands online.
Doctors also advise people not to scratch at the marks and to keep any blistered or ulcerated areas clean and dry to avoid infection.
To help prevent chilblains from forming on the toes, keep the feet warm and dry.
Anyone who experiences reoccurring chilblains should speak to a doctor, who may recommend treatment with a drug that makes the blood vessels thicker.
It is also worth noting that smoking damages blood circulation. Quitting smoking can help prevent chilblains.
A doctor may recommend medication that helps keep the blood vessels open.
The following tips can help people deal with the symptoms of Raynaud’s disease at home:
- Soak the feet in warm water at the first sign of symptoms.
- Always keep the hands and feet warm when the weather is cold.
- Try to avoid triggers, such as certain medicines and stress.
Wearing shoes with wide, flexible soles and enough room for the toes can help ease the pain of bunions. Sandals, shoes made from soft materials, and low heels are good options.
Try to protect the bunion using a bandage or gel-filled pad. These pads are available for purchase online.
Maintaining a healthy weight will also help with the symptoms.
When a bunion becomes sore or irritated, try:
- soaking the foot in warm water
- wrapping the area in an ice pack
- taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen
- massaging the area
If the pain of bunions is interfering with activities, speak to a doctor. They may recommend cortisone injections or, in severe cases, surgery.
Traumatic toe fracture
A person with a toe fracture should wear stiff-soled shoes until it heals.
Some traumatic toe fractures heal on their own with rest. Others require a splint to keep the bone in a fixed position while it heals.
The American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons recommend that anyone with a fractured toe wear stiff-soled shoes to protect the toe and help keep it in position.
In severe cases, a doctor may recommend surgery. This usually involves fixation devices, such as pins.
A number of health issues can cause red toes. These range from short term injuries to long term disorders affecting blood circulation. Treatment and prevention will depend on the cause of the discoloration.
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