What is a blister?

Blisters are small, fluid-filled bubbles that can form on the outer layers of your skin. They’re your body’s way of protecting damaged skin, so it’s usually best to leave them alone. Blisters are wounds that take time to heal. However, there are steps you can take to reduce the pain and discomfort.

Most blisters are the result of friction. They form when something rubs up against your skin, like an ill-fitting shoe or the handle of a shovel. Other possible causes of blisters include:

  • burns
  • sunburns
  • frostbite
  • eczema
  • allergic reactions
  • exposure to poison ivy, oak, or sumac
  • viral infections, such as herpes, shingles, or chickenpox
  • bacterial infections

Leave it alone

Most blisters heal on their own within a few days. The liquid-filled bubble of skin is actually a natural form of protection that helps shield the wound from harmful bacteria. Blisters also provide a safe space for new skin to grow.

As new skin grows, your body will slowly reabsorb the fluid. After a few days, your blister will dry up and flake off. Peeling off a dry blister can interfere with healing time, so it’s best to leave it alone. This also greatly reduces your chance of developing an infection.

Protect it

Some blisters may need a little extra protection to keep them from popping. A blister on the back of your heel, for example, might pop from the pressure of your shoes. In addition to causing a lot of pain, this can also increase the amount of time it takes for your blister to heal.

If possible, it’s best to avoid any friction around the area with the blister. However, this isn’t always possible. If that’s the case, there are several things you can do to cushion the blister and prevent it from popping:

  • Cover it up. Cover your blister with a loosely wrapped bandage. You can use a regular adhesive bandage or some gauze secured with tape. Your blister needs air to help it dry out, so keep the middle of the bandage slightly raised for airflow.
  • Cushion it. You can also cover your blister with a cushioned adhesive bandage specifically designed for blisters. It can keep out bacteria and reduce pain while your blister heals.
  • Pad it. Avoid putting pressure on your blister by cutting out a doughnut-shaped piece of moleskin. Moleskin has thick cotton padding that can absorb pressure. Be sure to cover the padding with a regular bandage to keep out bacteria.

Try natural remedies

In addition to protecting your blister, you can also try some natural remedies to help with the healing process.

Aloe vera

If you have blisters from a minor burn or sunburn, applying aloe vera gel can help reduce pain. For added relief, keep it in the refrigerator. The cool temperature will help pull heat away from the skin.

In addition, a 2016 study on wound healing in rats found that aloe vera reduced inflammation, promoted healing, and decreased the size of scar tissue.

Green tea

Green tea has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may promote wound healing. A recent study of green tea extract mixed into an ointment found that it reduced wound pain and promoted better, faster healing.

You can mix green tea extract with a carrier oil, such as coconut or almond oil, and apply it directly to your blister. You can also brew some green tea. Place the tea bag on your blister after running it under cold water.

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce the risk of infection and speed up heeling. Several studies have shown the powerful antibacterial effects of tea tree oil, even on surgical wounds.

You can mix tea tree oil with a carrier oil and apply it directly to the skin. You can also dilute tea tree oil with water and use it as an antibacterial wash.

Eucalyptus oil

Eucalyptus oil has antiseptic and antimicrobial properties that can help clean and disinfect wounds. Studies suggest that it can fight off powerful bacteria, such as Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus.

You can mix eucalyptus oil with any carrier oil, but a recent study suggests that mixing it with olive oil may actually enhance its wound-healing properties. Mix a few drops of eucalyptus oil into 1 teaspoon of olive oil. You can apply this directly to your blister or dilute it more with 1 tablespoon of cocoa butter.

Drain it

While it’s best to leave blisters alone, sometimes you just need to drain them, especially if they’re very large or in an inconvenient place. Try to avoid draining blisters on your lips or around your mouth, though. This area is hard to keep covered and sterile.

Never try to pop a blister like a pimple. Your goal is to drain the fluid without damaging the skin covering the blister. If you’re going to drain a blister, try to do it within 24 hours of it forming.

Follow these steps to safely drain a blister and minimize your risk of infection:

  1. Wash your hands and the blister. Wash your hands with soap and warm water. Clean the surface of the blister thoroughly with alcohol, iodine, or an antiseptic wash.
  2. Disinfect a needle with alcohol. Dip a needle in rubbing alcohol to disinfect it.
  3. Carefully puncture the blister. Poke three or four shallow holes around the edge of the blister. Allow the fluid to drain out.
  4. Cover the blister with ointment. Apply an ointment, such as petroleum jelly, to the blister.
  5. Apply a dressing. Cover the blister tightly with a bandage or gauze. You want the intact roof to press against the underlying skin.
  6. Repeat. Blisters tend to fill back up quickly. You may need to perform these steps every six to eight hours for the first 24 hours. After that, change the dressing and apply ointment daily.

When to see a doctor

Whether you drain them or not, blisters are prone to infection. Untreated infections can be painful and require a dose of antibiotics. In addition, some blisters are caused by something more serious than friction.

Call you doctor if:

  • The blister fills with yellow or green pus.
  • The area is red, inflamed, or hot to the touch.
  • The pain gets worse instead of better.
  • Your blisters are in unusual places, such as your mouth or eyes.
  • Your blister keeps coming back.
  • You have symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Preventing blisters

Blisters may seem unavoidable, especially when you’re breaking in a new pair of shoes. But there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Wear moisture-wicking socks instead of cotton ones to reduce moisture.
  • Apply moleskin or adhesive bandages in common blister areas, such as your heels.
  • Use a foot powder or antiperspirant to reduce moisture.
  • Try wearing two pairs of socks to redistribute friction.
  • Apply petroleum jelly to high-friction areas.
  • Wear work gloves when shoveling and raking.
  • Wear loose-fitting, moisture-wicking clothing.
  • Avoid wearing shoes that are too big or too small.

The bottom line

Blisters are a common problem for a lot of people. They can interfere with activities you love, such as hiking and running. While it’s best to let blisters heal on their own, sometimes you need to drain them. Regardless of what you decide to do, make sure to keep the area clean and protected until the blister fully heals.

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