How to care for your feet with diabetes

If you have diabetes, it is important to look after your feet to avoid infections and ulcers.

Key points about diabetes and foot care

  1. Diabetes can damage the blood vessels and nerves in your feet and cause symptoms including numbness, pain, ulcers and other serious foot problems.
  2. Everyone with diabetes should have a foot check once a year with your doctor or healthcare provider.
  3. If you have a high risk of diabetic foot disease, you may need these foot checks more often.
  4. You can look after your feet by checking them every day, caring for them properly and wearing proper shoes.
  5. You can help prevent diabetes foot problems by following your diabetes treatment plan, having a healthy lifestyle and getting medical treatment for any foot problems as soon as possible. 


How can diabetes affect my feet?

Diabetes can affect the blood vessels and nerves in your feet and cause symptoms such as:

  • loss of sensation (feeling)
  • numbness, pins and needles or tingling
  • not feeling when your feet are touching something hot or cold
  • pain or burning sensation
  • dry, thin or discoloured skin
  • slow healing of cuts or skin breaks. 

If you cannot feel things like pain or heat, you can injure your foot without realising. Just a small crack or cut can lead to a serious infection if you don’t notice and get treatment quickly.  

Contact your podiatrist, doctor or diabetes healthcare provider straight away if you have diabetes and:

  • a break or cut in the skin of your foot
  • the skin on your foot changes colour (red, blue, black, pale or white)
  • new swelling of your foot
  • a fever (high temperature) or you feel unwell.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you are not sure what to do.

Conditions affecting your feet that can be caused by diabetes include:

  • foot ulcer 
  • bacterial or fungal infection of your foot
  • peripheral vascular disease (blockage of the blood vessels in your legs) 
  • gangrene (tissue death due to lack of blood supply)
  • Charcot foot (foot deformity with or without pain).

Some of these conditions can be very serious and if not caught early enough can lead to amputation (an operation to remove a limb).

How do I know if I am at higher risk of diabetes foot problems? 

Your healthcare provider will tell you at your diabetes check-up if you are at higher risk of getting diabetes foot problems.

There is more chance of getting diabetes foot problems if:

What foot checks do I need if I have diabetes?

Everyone with diabetes should have a foot check once a year with your doctor or healthcare provider. They will look at your feet, check the sensations (feelings) and pulses in your feet.

If you have been told you have a high risk of diabetic foot disease, you should get your feet checked every time you see your healthcare provider. 

How can I look after my feet if I have diabetes?

Looking after your feet involves checking them every day, caring for them properly and wearing proper shoes. You should also avoid doing things that could damage your feet. 

Foot checks

Check your feet every day for:

  • blisters
  • breaks in your skin
  • pain
  • any signs of infection, such as redness, heat or swelling.

If you can't do this yourself, ask your partner or carer to help you.

If you discover any breaks in your skin, minor cuts or blisters:

  • cover the area with a sterile dressing
  • contact your podiatrist or GP immediately
  • go to your local after-hours clinic if it is after hours and there's no sign of healing after one day.

Foot care

Wash your feet every day.

  • Use warm water and mild soap.
  • You may not be able to feel hot or cold well, so test the water temperature first with your elbow or ask someone to do it for you.
  • Rinse your feet thoroughly.
  • Don't soak your feet, as this may damage your skin.
  • Dry your feet carefully, especially between your toes.

If your skin is dry, apply a moisturising cream every day. Avoid the areas between your toes. Wear socks and change them every day. Choose socks without thick seams or tight elastic. Always remove hot water bottles or heating pads from your bed before getting in.

Shoes

Always wear shoes, even indoors. You could use slippers indoors or keep special ‘inside’ shoes.

Make sure your shoes fit well, are comfortable and protect your whole foot, eg, a cushioned sports shoe. Wearing jandals puts you at risk of getting cuts and scrapes on your feet. 

A podiatrist can advise you about shoes, including buying new shoes or getting prescription shoes.

Before you put on your shoes, check the bottom to make sure nothing sharp has pierced the outer sole. Run your hand inside each shoe to check that no small objects such as small stones have fallen in.

If your podiatrist or orthotist (the person who makes the shoes) has supplied you with prescription shoes:

  • follow the instructions they give you
  • only wear these shoes
  • only remove insoles if your orthotist or podiatrist advises you to
  • contact your podiatrist or orthotist if the shoes are damaged or not fitting well.

Things to avoid

  • Don’t walk barefoot, even indoors, as you could stub your toes or stand on something sharp.
  • Don't cut into the corners of your toenails, as this can lead to ingrown nails
  • Don’t burst blisters or try to remove hard skin or corns yourself. A podiatrist can provide advice and treatment.
  • Don’t use over-the-counter corn remedies, as they can damage your skin and cause ulcers.
  • Don’t sit with your feet in front of a fire or heater to warm them up. If your feet can’t feel heat well they can easily get burnt without you realising.

How can I prevent and treat diabetic foot disease?

Learn more

The following links provide further information about diabetes and foot care. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.   

Diabetes and how to care for your feet Diabetes NZ
The right steps to healthy feet Diabetes NZ
Feet Diabetes NZ
Diabetes and foot problems Diabetes UK
How to look after your feet if you have diabetes NHS, UK​ 

References

  1. Management of the diabetic foot Ministry of Health, NZ & New Zealand Society for the Study of Diabetes

Reviewed by

Dr Alice Miller trained as a GP in the UK and has been working in New Zealand since 2013. She has undertaken extra study in diabetes, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and skin cancer medicine. Alice has a special interest in preventative health and self-care, which she is building on by studying for the Diploma of Public Health with the University of Otago in Wellington.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Alice Miller, FRNZCGP, Wellington Last reviewed: 30 Apr 2021