Jodie Thomas, a mother-of-three from Wales, never suspected that back-to-school shopping with her 4-year-old daughter, Sienna, could take such an ominous turn. After trying on a pair of shoes without socks in a department store, Sienna developed a life-threatening sepsis that left her hospitalized the next day.
While Sienna is reportedly recovering, her story has raised some serious concerns: How does something like this happen, and can our shoes really pose a major hazard to our well-being?
The answer, in the part, is yes.
“Shoes are the perfect breeding ground for bacteria,” New York podiatrist Dr. Emily Splichal said. “On the inside, they offer a damp, moist and dark environment, while the soles get so much mileage in everyday life, they come into contact with many strains of bacteria — both innocuous and deadly — which can in turn can be transferred to all sorts of surfaces your skin can come in contact with. In Sienna’s case, she could have either been exposed to a harmful strain someone else had left inside the shoe after trying it on, or from walking around barefoot on the department store floor.”
In fact, according to a 2016 study from the University of Arizona, researchers found that after two weeks of wear, a pair of test shoes transferred 90 to 99 percent bacteria on its exterior — including deadly E. Coli and Klebssiella pneumonia to hard tile and carpet.
While we do come in contact with these harmful strains on a daily basis, there has to be a portal of entry or cut in the skin — which Dr. Splichal, as well as doctors in the U.K., believe was likely the case with Sienna — for infection to occur. This allows the bacteria to enter the bloodstream, after which the immune system will try to attack it. That’s why sepsis, which is the body’s overwhelming and often deadly reaction to an infection, is most common in people with weakened immune systems, such as diabetics and cancer patients, as well as infants and the elderly.
When left untreated, sepsis can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and even death in extreme scenarios.
Even if you don’t fall into one of the above categories, Dr. Splichal says it’s still important to take precautionary measures. Sepsis can happen to anyone, and while severe cases are more rare, there’s always the risk of bacteria — which is everywhere — getting under the skin and into the blood.
Some of her top tips for staying healthy?
If you see something, say something.
Visit your doctor immediately if you notice any signs of a bacterial infection, such as pain, redness, swelling, drainage, or the skin feeling hot to the touch.
Check your feet regularly, especially for calluses.
Cuts on your feet can manifest in less obvious ways, says Dr. Splichal. Calluses, or areas of thickened skin that form as a response to repeated friction, can cause skin to become dry and cracked, which can lead to breaks in the skin. The best way to prevent this? “Use a pumice stone to remove toughened patches and follow up with urea cream or CeraVe to prevent future cracking and reduce your risk of infection.”
Bacteria also likes to grow in wet places, so it’s best to keep your feet as dry as possible before putting them in shoes. “After a shower, simply check the bottom of your feet and in between the toes for residual moisture.”
Use gauze or a bandage to cover cuts.
If you do have a cut in the heel or any part of your foot, Dr. Splichal says these are the most effective barriers for preventing infection. You can even go the extra mile with antibacterial bandages, which also feature extra strong adhesive to stay put through all sorts of activities.
Invest in lightweight footwear options for times where you’d normally be barefoot.
Surfaces that often come into contact with bare feet, like airport floors, dorm showers and even the floor in your home can be host to a range of bacteria. If you’re going through airport security and don’t have socks, try a pair of disposable foot protectors you can easily slip on over bare feet. In dorm showers, wear a pair rubber sandals that don’t retain moisture, and opt for house slippers when walking around your home.