Whether you're an athlete or just dealing with everyday blisters, say goodbye to painful blisters with our comprehensive guide to treatments and remedies
We've all had them at some point in our lives. Blisters are small, fluid-filled bubbles that form beneath the outer layer of skin and can be caused by various factors, such as friction, burns, or insect bites.
What causes blisters?
The most frequent cause of blisters is excessive friction on moist skin. As a blister forms, clear fluid accumulates in a pocket between the layers of the skin. Sometimes a small blood vessel in the area is damaged and the fluid in the blister becomes tinged with blood. These types of blisters are generally found on the hands and feet but can occur elsewhere, too. Other potential blister causes include sunburn and other burns, eczema and various skin conditions.
"The most frequent cause of blisters is excessive friction on moist skin"
Did you know? Blisters come in many shapes and sizes. In medical terms, if they are larger than 5mm, they are technically known as bullae; if they're smaller, they are called vesicles.
How to treat a blister
Credit: Alina Humeniuk
Leave a blister intact if at all possible, and if it's going to pop, let it do so on its own—keep the blister clean with soap and water. You can dab on petroleum jellies such as Vaseline or some other emollient to minimise further friction.
Whether and when to cover a blister depends very much on the site of the blister–if it's likely to get knocked, it should be covered. Cover it with an adhesive plaster and change it at least once a day. If it is not likely to get knocked and burst open, it's best left open to the air.
Protect the blister with a piece of moleskin—a soft, adhesive cushion available from pharmacies. Leave it on for two days and remove it carefully so that it doesn't tear the fragile skin beneath.
At night, remove all dressings from the blister to expose the area to the air. This will speed up healing. However, if the blister is in a vulnerable area and likely to rub on bedclothes, then keep it covered with a light dressing.
Apply calendula cream, a product made from marigold. It's traditionally used as a soothing wound healer. To keep the cream clean, cover it with an adhesive plaster or a gauze pad.
If you don't have any calendula cream, apply some aloe vera gel to the blister and cover it with a dressing. But be sure to use the pure gel of the plant—cut a leaf and squeeze the healing gel from the middle—as manufactured products may contain ingredients such as alcohol, which have a drying effect.
Do not drain a blister unless absolutely necessary—if it is especially large, for example, or in a spot where you can't avoid putting pressure on it.
Sterilise a needle. Use a pair of pliers or tweezers to hold the needle over a naked flame for a few seconds until it glows red. Let it cool. Clean the blister with surgical spirit or an antiseptic cleanser.
Open a sterile gauze pad and lay it gently on top of the blister. Pierce the edge of the blister, sliding the needle in sideways, and gently squeeze out the liquid by pressing down on the gauze pad. Make sure you don't tear or remove that top layer of skin holding the fluid in, as it's protecting an extremely sensitive circle of skin beneath.
Apply an antiseptic cream such as Savlon and cover it with a clean dressing. Or cover it with Second Skin, a blister dressing. It's a moist, jelly-like covering that absorbs pressure and reduces friction. It can be cut to size and taped in place. Change the dressing twice a day.
Apply a mixture of vitamin E and calendula cream to help your skin heal faster. Vitamin E comes in capsules. Snip open or pierce a capsule, mix equal amounts of the vitamin and calendula oil, and apply the mixture to your blister. Reapply as needed for up to a week.
Treating popped blisters
Try to avoid popping blisters, but if they do pop prematurely, follow these steps.
Wash the blister with soap and water. Apply a healing cream or gel and cover with a clean dressing. Four times a day, remove the dressing and treat the raw area with a drop or two of neat tea-tree oil. The tea-tree oil will help to kill bacteria and will also prevent an infection from developing.
After a blister breaks, clean it and apply comfrey salve twice daily to help regenerate new skin. Pawpaw ointment and chickweed cream are also terrific for fighting infection and promoting skin healing.
Don't use iodine when disinfecting a pricked blister, or any other minor wound for that matter. Some experts point out that it's so strong it can even kill the cells you are trying to heal. Either dilute the iodine in a 1:3 ratio or use a conventional over-the-counter antiseptic cream or a natural healing salve containing an active ingredient, such as tea-tree.
How to prevent blisters
1. Shoe shopping
Don't assume you know your proper shoe size or that your feet haven't changed since you last bought shoes. Have your feet measured every time you buy. And when you try on shoes, be sure you're wearing the same kind of socks you will be wearing with the new shoes.
Shop for shoes in the afternoon. Your feet swell during the day, and if you buy a pair in the morning, you might be getting half a size too small.
Make sure new shoes are roomy in the toe area. When you're standing up, you should have a thumb width of space between your longest toe and the end of your shoe.
2. Dry Feet
For long walks or hikes, try wearing 2 pairs of socks to reduce friction. The inner pair should be made of a thin fabric, such as acrylic, that draws out sweat, teamed up with an outer pair made of cotton.
You may also want to use an antiperspirant on your feet to keep them dry. Dry feet are less likely to develop blisters.
Treat your feet with daily powdering. Apply baby powder to your feet before putting on socks or tights. This helps the sock or tights to glide over your feet a little more easily, which helps to prevent blisters from forming.
3. Look after your hands
Gardeners can prevent blisters on their hands by wearing soft leather or sturdy fabric gardening gloves. If you always get blisters when you hoe the garden, even if you wear gloves, look for a hoe with a larger handle or a cushioned grip.
Anyone who plays racquet sports will probably have to contend with hand blisters. But if they keep recurring, get advice from your local sports shop about changing the grip on your racquet or wrapping it with a soft, absorbent covering.
Cover blister-prone spots with a lubricant such as petroleum jelly (Vaseline) or a thick nappy ointment before you go for a run.
Large or infected blisters
If your blister is very large—more than 5cm across—you should see a doctor. Any symptoms of infection should also be looked at by a doctor, such as pain that isn't lessening day after day, a raised temperature, redness that extends beyond the borders of the blister, or when the fluid coming out of the blister is not watery but thick or has an unpleasant smell. Some disorders that cause blisters, such as chickenpox, eczema and impetigo, may also require a doctor's care.
Read more: How to prevent athlete's foot
Read more: Treatment for burns and scalds on the skin
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