A Comprehensive Guide To Blisters: Symptoms, Treatment And Prevention

A Comprehensive Guide To Blisters: Symptoms, Treatment And Prevention
January 3, 2014 11:37 PM

Blisters are small fluid filled bumps that form in the upper layers of the skin. They are usually the result of friction, pressure or irritation of some kind to your skin. Blisters can form anywhere in the body, but they most commonly occur on the hands and feet. Depending on what the cause is, a blister can appear alone or in clusters. The cause and location also determines the size of a blister, which can range from a pinprick to one or more inches in diameter.

Most blisters contain a clear fluid known as serum, which is basically a component of blood without the red blood cells or proteins. But sometimes you can get blood blisters, which happens when a severe pinch or bruise breaks tiny blood capillaries in your skin, or even blisters filled with pus if the area becomes infected.

Causes of blisters

Blisters are commonly caused by some type of injury to the skin. Fluid collects under the skin that gets damaged, providing a cushion to protect the area underneath and allow it to heal. Common causes of blisters include:

  • Friction to the skin (e.g. from wearing poorly fitting shoes that rub against the skin or using a shovel without gloves)
  • Burns from heat, chemicals (e.g. detergents) or sun exposure
  • Allergic reaction of the skin to irritants
  • Skin infections, including viral (e.g. chicken pox, herpes and cold sores), fungal (e.g. athlete's foot) or bacterial (e.g. impetigo)

Blisters: Symptoms, treatment and prevention

Now that you know what blisters are and what they're caused by, find out ways you can identify and treat them, and how you can prevent yourself from getting a blister in the first place.

Symptoms

You can tell you have a blister when you see a raised, fluid-filled lump on your skin. The fluid is usually clear, but can be filled with blood or pus. Symptoms that may accompany the blister may include:

  • A burning sensation

  • Pain or tenderness surrounding the blister

  • Redness

  • Itching 

  • Rash

Treatment

Most blisters usually heal themselves and rarely need medical attention. As the skin underneath the blister recovers, your body gradually reabsorbs the fluid and the skin on top becomes dry and peels off itself. This can take roughly a week or so. In the meantime, there are ways you can take care of the area.

First things first, you should keep the injured area protected and be gentle with it. You should not to pop or burst a blister, as tempting as it might be, since the unbroken skin provides a barrier against infection. Piercing the blister increases the chance of it becoming infected and delays the healing process. Just let the skin peel off on its own. You should also avoid scratching the blister. If you need to, ask your doctor about relief for any itching or discomfort.

To prevent it from becoming injured, you may want to cover the blister with a bandage. You can use a plaster if its a small blister, but for larger blisters, a dressing or gauze pad can be taped over the affected area. A soft dressing is especially a good idea for painful blisters or blisters that are located in places like the sole of your foot where they are likely to break.

Keeping the area clean and dry should also be a priority. You should change the dressing each day and when you do, wash your hands to avoid introducing infection. Washing the area frequently will help keep away dirt or irritants. With closed blisters, you can wash the area using salt water or a mild soap and water before applying a bandage. If the blister has burst, don't peel off any of the remaining skin on top. Allow the fluid to drain, wash the area and cover it with a dry, sterile dressing or bandage to keep it from infection while it heals on its own. Over the counter hydrocolloid dressings can be helpful in preventing discomfort and encouraging the healing process.

Some blisters, particularly blood blisters, can be painful. You can apply an ice pack or even a bag of frozen vegetables to the area immediately after the injury to help relieve the pain, keeping it there for 10 to 30 minutes depending on how long you need it. Wrapping up the ice pack in a towel will keep the ice from touching the affected skin area directly. Otherwise, you should follow the same directions outlined above when it comes to keeping it clean and dry, and protecting it by using a sterile dressing.

While most blisters heal on their own, you may need to see a doctor if:

  • The blister was caused by a medical condition such as herpes, chicken pox or an allergic reaction.
  • The blister is infected, which may be indicated by redness, swelling, pus, fever or pain.
  • The blister was caused by a burn.
  • The blister is abnormally large.

Prevention

There are many ways you can prevent getting blisters on your skin. Here are some tips to help you keep your skin free of blisters:

  • Avoid wearing tight fitting shoes that rub against your feet. Always choose comfortable and well-fitting shoes. If you are going to be walking a lot, choose comfortable shoes that you have worn before as brand new shoes may not be comfortable at first and may rub.
  • Since blisters are more likely to form on moist skin, it's important to keep your feet clean and dry. That means wearing clean socks with your shoes. If you have feet that are especially prone to sweating, wear socks that absorb moisture or change your socks during the day.
  • Put on protective gloves when you're doing manual work in the garden and using tools like shovels to help prevent blisters from forming on your hands.
  • Use proper safety and protective gear when working in environments that use heat or chemicals.
  • Be careful with handling objects that get very hot, like the stove or a hot pot.
  • Use sunscreen and wear a hat to protect yourself from the sun and avoid getting sunburn blisters. If you do get sunburnt, use a moisturizing lotion to alleviate any discomfort.
  • Wear protective gloves when using detergents, cleaning products and other chemical solutions and avoid unnecessary contact.
  • Blisters that are caused by a medical condition are usually not preventable. But you can avoid contact with people who have infections which cause blisters, such as chickenpox, shingles, or cold sores, to prevent acquiring the infection.
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Written by: Michal Vilímovský (EN)
Education: Medical student, 3rd Faculty of Medicine, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic
Published: January 3, 2014 11:37 PM
Next scheduled update: January 3, 2016 11:37 PM
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