If you are planning to go to the Glastonbury music festival this weekend and your prayers for a dry and warm few days aren’t answered, you might like to heed BBC reporter Andy Sully’s advice and look after your feet, or you could end up with trench foot, as he did last year.

The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, better known as Glastonbury or Glasto, is the largest music and performing arts festival of its kind in the world. Last year this hugely popular three day event (the tickets cost 145 pounds each and sold out in less than two hours) attracted over 175,000 people who watched over 700 acts perform live on more than 80 stages.

For three days, festival goers live a hippie-like existence, sleeping either under the stars, or in tents, especially when the weather is wet, like it was last year when the relentless heavy rain turned the festival grounds into what looked more like a very muddy battlefield.

Podiatrist Amber Kibby who is a trustee director of a charity that provides medical services at Glastonbury, Festival Medical Services, told Sully this week that the team of 13 festival podiatrists got started in 1998, the worst year for trench foot.

Back then, they were seeing 90 cases of trench foot a day, but the numbers have dropped every year since, said Kibby who reckoned that people appeared to be better prepared nowadays; they bring socks and waterproof boots or “wellies” and change out of wet shoes and socks as often as possible.

Trench foot is a condition that develops in the feet after a while of being immersed in cold, wet and insanitary conditions, hence its other name, immersion foot. It happens when the blood vessels in the feet restrict blood flow to the extreme areas of the feet to conserve heat. Once it sets in it can take several months to heal.

It was a familiar complaint affecting soldiers fighting in the First World War, who stood for hour after hour in cold, waterlogged trenches without the opportunity to take off their wet shoes and boots and dry and warm their feet.

Under those conditions it was not unusual for trench foot to become so bad that it became gangrenous and many soldiers had to have amputations to save their lives. During the winter of 1914-15 over 20,000 British Army soldiers were treated for trench foot.

After that soldiers were ordered to change their socks at least twice a day. They were also told to dry their feet and cover them with whale oil grease as a water barrier. Estimates suggest as much as ten gallons of whale oil a day was used by each battalion at the front for this purpose.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the symptoms of trench foot include:

  • Tingling and/or itching sensations.
  • Pain, swelling, cold and blotchy skin.
  • Feeling of numbness and prickly or heavy feeling in the foot.
  • The foot can get red, dry, and painful after it becomes warm.
  • The skin can develop blisters, followed by skin and tissue dying and falling off.
  • In really bad cases, if untreated, the condition can spread to the toes, heel and entire foot.

Like the soldiers at the front were advised to do, you can stop yourself getting trench foot by changing your wet shoes and socks for dry ones and when possible, dry your feet in the air and keep them elevated until dry. Although whale oil is probably out of the question, you could get some polypropylene sock liners or cover your feet with Vaseline, as podiatric surgeon Kaser Nazir advised Sully.

If you are unlucky and develop trench foot, the CDC advises that you:

  • Thoroughly clean and dry your feet.
  • Put on clean, dry socks every day, or more frequently if you are going to be in mud for long periods.
  • Treat the affected foot by applying warm packs or soaking in water that is slightly warmer than body temperature for about 5 minutes.
  • Don’t wear socks while sleeping or resting.
  • If you have a wound on your foot it can become infected so check it at least once a day incase symptoms get worse.
  • Get a doctor to check your feet as soon as possible.

On the other hand, your prayers might be answered and unlike last year, the mud bath will be replaced with glorious British sunshine, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Sources: BBC, CDC, Spartacus Educational (WWI), wikipedia (Glastonbury).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD