Shoes: New Airport Health Hazard

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

6 min read

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.

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."

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.

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.

"I've been flying a lot -- and my experience all summer was that individual airports are still making you take off your shoes," Stone tells WebMD. "Probably the only way you can combat the fact you are walking on a filthy floor is to keep a pair of socks on."

Stone notes that late summer is a time when lots of people have foot fungi. She suspects that athlete's foot is rampant on airport floors, but she notes that it's hard to tell where a person actually got it. To date, there haven't been any studies.

"Athlete's foot is not the only issue," Calis says. "Think of all the things that fall off people's shoes. Also, there might be small tacks or sharp pebbles that could cut you -- and if you have an opening in the skin, that is asking for infection. Even a sock won't protect your foot. If you do step on a tack, then we're talking about having to get a tetanus shot, and possible staph or pseudomonas infections."

Not everybody who walks through an airport has been walking on air.

"You never know where people's shoes have been," Calis says. "If someone who's been on a farm walks through the airport, you'll have fecal matter, too."

And not everybody who takes off their shoes should do so.

"People with diabetic feet, some have a loss of protective feeling," Calis notes. "We podiatrists tell them never to walk around barefoot. They may step on something and not know it's there. That would be a great concern of mine if I were diabetic."

As the TSA says, you don't necessarily have to take off your shoes. But many of us will, so Calis offers these tips:

  • Wear socks. If they don't go with those Manolos, maybe it's best to wear a different style shoe.
  • Consider taking along a pair of those disposable slip-on booties similar to those worn in hospitals or spas.
  • If you're diabetic, avoid removing your shoes unless required to do so. If you must go shoeless, double-check the floor before walking on it.
  • Carry disposable wet wipes and a paper towel in your carry-on. Before putting your shoes back on, clean and dry your feet.
  • Antifungal or antibiotic products are probably unnecessary.

And the TSA, too, has tips:

Screeners are trained to look for suspicious footwear. Don't wear anything that looks out of the ordinary.

  • Don't wear shoes with steel tips, steel heels, steel shanks, metal buckles, or nails. Tennis shoes are usually a safe bet.
  • If you know that your shoes set off the alarm on the metal detector, wear something else while flying.
  • Shoes in your carry-on luggage might also be a problem. Pack them near the top of the bag for easy inspection.

WebMD asked its members whether they had any concerns about bare feet and airport floors. Everybody who flies seems to have foot-wrestled with the issue.

"I was appalled that I had to remove my flip flops and walk bare foot through the medal detector -- not once but twice going to and from Florida," a member writes. "I think this is a major health issue and it needs to be addressed. I've already dealt with having a toenail fungus and it wasn't easy to get rid of. I was nervous about what else I could pick up by doing this."

Some worry that they've already been infected.

"I've had my shoes off -- I was even told to remove my socks," another member writes. "The scary part of all that is that I've been fighting a fungus on my left foot for about a year -- no joke -- and that's about the time I was all but stripped at the Orlando International Airport when I escorted my stepson to his plane. I've had to replace all my shoes, bleach my tile floors, I've taken topical creams (almost every OTC kind, then got an Rx or two from my doc), and even an Rx pill to take - and NOTHING has worked. My doc is baffled! Ok, now I am totally grossed out. Totally and completely. I never even considered the airport incident!"

And some just worry:

  • "Why cant they just have you remove one shoe at a time and inspect it so you don't have to put your barefoot on the disgusting floor?"
  • " I was flying from Cleveland to Atlanta, and ... I had to take [my dress] boots off so that the screener could feel my feet, then I was asked to take of my socks, because I had two toe rings on my toes. I was not too thrilled about walking on the floor with bare feet, due to the fact that there is no telling what is on the floor."