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5th August, 20218 min read

Smelly feet (bromodosis): Symptoms, causes and treatment

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Libby Williams
Last reviewed: 18/07/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Is it common to have smelly feet?

Having smelly feet is a common problem that happens at any time of the year – not only in summer – and at any temperature, hot or cold. It’s medically known as bromodosis.

Your feet usually get smelly because of a build-up in sweat, which causes bacteria to grow on your skin and give off a bad odour. Some of the other causes of smelly feet include wearing sweaty shoes and socks, and poor foot hygiene.

Smelly feet can be an unpleasant and embarrassing problem, but it’s usually easily treated by improving your foot hygiene and trying a few simple foot treatments. Sometimes, however, there may be a medical reason why your feet smell, and you may need to see a doctor.

What are the symptoms of smelly feet?

The main symptom of bromodosis is a bad smell coming from your feet. In most cases, you’ll only notice the smell when you take off your shoes and socks. But when bromodosis is more serious, you may be able to smell your feet even with your shoes on.

Sometimes, you may also notice changes in the skin on your feet, including:

  • cuts
  • itchy white patches between your toes
  • cracked skin that may bleed
  • white-looking skin with small pits or holes on the soles of your feet

When to see a doctor about smelly feet

Most of the time, smelly feet can be managed with simple self-care measures. But sometimes, it can be a sign of a medical condition. See a doctor if your feet still smell after you’ve tried all treatment options, or if the skin on your foot is red, hot and painful, broken or weeping.

Foot infections like athlete’s foot can sometimes cause foot odour. And while the fungal infection that causes athlete’s foot can usually be treated with creams from a pharmacy, for some people athlete’s foot can be harder to treat and lead to complications. See a doctor if you have athlete’s foot and:

  • the treatments from a pharmacy aren’t working
  • you have diabetes – foot problems can be serious if you have diabetes
  • you have a weakened immune system – for example, you’re having chemotherapy or have had an organ transplant

If you have very sweaty smelly feet, it may also be a sign of a condition called hyperhidrosis, which is when you sweat too much. See a doctor if you’re worried that you sweat a lot more than other people and:

  • it’s happening more than once a week
  • you’ve been sweating a lot for at least 6 months
  • it’s stopping you from doing your daily activities
  • it’s affecting your social interactions, quality of life and self-esteem
  • you’re having night sweats
  • you have a family history of hyperhidrosis
  • you’re taking medication for another condition
  • you're losing weight without meaning to
  • you have a fever

You should go to the emergency department immediately if the skin on your foot is painful, hot and swollen and you have the following symptoms:

  • a fever or chills
  • a fast heart rate
  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • a headache
  • you feel confused

What causes smelly feet?

The main cause of smelly feet is sweaty feet. Our feet are home to 250,000 sweat glands and tend to sweat more than any other part of our bodies. Sweat glands are important because they release sweat throughout the day to cool your body down, help your body get rid of water and salt, and protect your skin from bacteria. And sweat usually doesn’t smell when it’s fresh.

But if you sweat into your socks and shoes and don’t allow this sweat to dry or soak into something else, your skin stays damp and bacteria start to grow. These bacteria then break down the sweat, producing chemicals that cause your bad foot odour.

The main reasons why your feet sweat and then smell include:

  • being on your feet all day
  • wearing shoes that are too tight or made out of material that doesn’t allow your sweat to dry out
  • wearing shoes that haven’t dried out completely
  • not changing your socks at least once a day or not washing your feet regularly
  • hormonal changes, which make you sweat more (common in pregnancy and for teenagers)
  • stress (you sweat more if you’re anxious)
  • hyperhidrosis

Sometimes, smelly feet may be caused or made worse by a fungal infection like athlete’s foot, or by a bacterial skin infection called pitted keratolysis, which affects the soles of your feet causing white-looking skin with small pits or ‘holes’.

If you have very sweaty feet, you have a greater chance of getting athlete’s foot and cuts in your skin that may cause other skin infections.

Read more about the symptoms and treatment of athlete’s foot.

How is bromodosis diagnosed?

A doctor will usually diagnose bromodosis based on your symptoms and will then recommend the best treatment, including self-care strategies and medicines, if needed.

They may check if you have foot infections like athlete’s foot or cuts in your skin that may have caused other kinds of infections like cellulitis.

They may ask if you have the symptoms of hyperhidrosis or any other underlying medical conditions that may be putting your feet at risk of damage, like diabetes, peripheral neuropathy or peripheral artery disease.

If the smell isn’t just your feet and is coming from other parts of your body, or you’re sweating a lot in general, a doctor may want to do blood tests or urine tests to find out if there’s an underlying condition that may be causing these symptoms. Tests could also include taking a scraping of skin from your foot to send to a laboratory to check if you have athlete’s foot, for example.

If you have athlete’s foot or hyperhidrosis, a doctor may suggest you see a specialist like a podiatrist or dermatologist for further treatment.

Treatment for smelly feet

There are many self-care treatments and strategies that can help you deal with the problem of sweaty, smelly feet. To take care of your feet and reduce their smell, make sure you:

  • wash them well every day with soap and warm water
  • dry them completely whenever they get wet
  • keep your toenails short and clean
  • remove any hard skin from the soles of your feet by filing it off – this skin can get soggy and breed bacteria
  • wear a new pair of socks every day and change them during the day if they get too damp
  • choose absorbent socks made from natural fibres such as cotton, or socks specially made to absorb moisture
  • give your shoes 24 hours to completely dry out before wearing them again
  • avoid tight and synthetic shoes – choose leather instead, for example

You can also help to manage sweaty, smelly feet with products you can buy from a supermarket or pharmacy. Read more about how to stop smelly feet with these products and other treatments.

How long will it take for smelly feet to get better?

Smelly feet can be embarrassing, but they’re usually easily treated with self-care, including keeping your feet clean and dry, and changing your shoes and socks regularly. Antibacterial soaps or medication can also help if needed.

It’s important to treat smelly feet because they can cause other problems like athlete’s foot, or cuts and breaks in your skin that can lead to serious infections.

If you’re diagnosed with an underlying health condition like diabetes, peripheral neuropathy or peripheral arterial disease, it’s very important to care for your feet every day to avoid infections.

Your health questions answered

Why do my feet smell like vinegar?

Bacteria are types of germs that live on your feet and multiply in your sweat. When they break down your sweat, they release chemicals, or organic acids that can smell strange and unpleasant. This process of breaking down your sweat produces something called propionic acid, which can smell like vinegar. – Healthily’s Medical Team

Is smelly feet a sign of diabetes?

Smelly feet are usually harmless and can generally clear up on their own. However, sometimes they can be a sign of a medical condition like diabetes. If you have diabetes, you’re more likely to get fungal infections on your feet, which, in turn, can cause smelly feet. See a doctor if you think you may have diabetes, if you have a foot sore that doesn’t heal, if you have warm, red or painful skin on your foot, or black and smelly skin on your feet. – Healthily’s Medical Team

Key takeaways

  • having smelly feet is a common problem, usually caused by having sweaty feet
  • the medical term for smelly feet is bromodosis
  • common causes of smelly feet include being on your feet all day, shoes that don’t fit, wearing the same shoes every day, not changing your socks once a day, hormonal changes and stress
  • sometimes, smelly feet can be a sign of a medical condition, including hyperhidrosis, athlete’s foot or diabetes
  • go to hospital if the skin on your foot is painful, hot and swollen and you also have a fever or chills, a fast heart rate, a headache, or feel dizzy, faint or confused
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