Ask the doctor

By Toni Golen, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women’s Health Watch; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing; Contributor

photo of the bottoms of a pair of feet showing cracked skinQ. Even though I apply rich moisturizers to my heels, they’re severely cracked—so badly that they sometimes bleed. Why is this happening?

A. Also known as heel fissures, cracks in the heels occur when the skin on the bottom of the heel becomes hard and parched, and is sometimes associated with thick heel calluses. Often, softening the skin with moisturizers or petroleum jelly does the trick — especially during dry winter months — so you may be facing a deeper problem if that practice isn’t working.

The most common other reason for dry, cracked heels may surprise you: the fungal infection known as athlete’s foot. While it usually produces itchy, scaly skin on the soles of the feet and between the toes, athlete’s foot can also migrate to the heels, causing painful fissures. In most cases, over-the-counter products geared toward athlete’s foot successfully treat the problem within a week.

If that approach doesn’t work, see your doctor. Less commonly, cracked heels are a sign of a medical condition such as hypothyroidism, diabetes, Sjögren’s syndrome (which prevents the body from generating enough moisture), or bone spurs in the heels.

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