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Shoes: New Airport Health Hazard

Taking your shoes off at airport security checkpoints exposes your feet to fungus and injury.
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WebMD Feature

Fear of flying is so yesterday. The new air scare: your bare feet on the airport floor.

You don't have to take off your shoes to pass through airport security, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration says. But it will speed your screening experience. And you might have to remove your Manolos anyway, if they trigger the sensitive metal detector or if you're selected for "secondary screening" -- the TSA sobriquet for a personal inspection.

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So there you stand -- barefoot -- ready to tread where many unshod others trod before. Ick, says Rami Calis [pronounced cah-LEASE], DPM, a podiatry instructor at Atlanta's Emory University.

"I for one am bugged by people having to take off their shoes at airports," Calis tells WebMD. "I do think it is unsanitary."

Barefoot in the Airport

If you fly often, you know the drill. As you snake through the line toward the security checkpoint, you see people setting off the alarm. Everybody sighs. They try not to make eye contact with the suspect, who is then politely but firmly asked to join another line.

This time, it's not just a walk-through. Usually, the unfortunate secondary screenees must take off their shoes and stand on a mat. The mat is, ironically, imprinted with shoe-shaped footprints, which seem to have once been white -- many, many screenings ago. Meanwhile, a helpful same-sex TSA agent passes an electronic wand and/or gloved hands about their body.

Hoping to avoid this, you wrack your brain for anything on your person that might conceivably trip the metal detector. Into the handy plastic bin go your car keys, your belt, and -- better safe than sorry -- your shoes.

It works! You get through with nary a beep. You grab all your stuff and -- move along, please! -- walk on through security. And on. Don't even think of sitting in chairs in the secondary screening area. You must keep going until clear of the area. Back into your pocket go the car keys. You slip your belt around your waist, lean against a wall to wriggle into your shoes, and hope a footbath isn't far in the future.

Athlete's Foot and More

You may not want to think about what you just walked through. But Calis does. And one of the things he thinks about is fungus -- the highly contagious kind that causes the cracked and itchy foot infection we call athlete's foot.

"Athlete's foot infections must be rampant," he says. "The floor is often dirty where all those people walk through security. And it doesn't get any sun. I haven't taken any samples from these areas, but if we do I bet we'll find 101 different things."

Unpleasant things, agrees Kathleen M. Stone, DPM, trustee for the American Podiatric Medical Association and a private-practice podiatrist in Glendale, Ariz.

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