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How to Treat and Prevent Immersion Syndrome

You may have heard of trench foot as a condition that soldiers contract from wet boots, but did you know that anyone can get it pretty much anywhere there’s water?

Trench foot is part of a family of injuries called immersion syndrome that can cause severe damage if treated improperly. Keep reading to learn more about what immersion syndrome is and how you can protect yourself from it.

Immersion Syndrome

What Is Immersion Syndrome?

Immersion syndrome is a group of conditions that are caused by prolonged exposure to wet weather.

Specifically, when this syndrome occurs, the outer layer of skin absorbs too much water. The excessive absorption is what causes further damage to your body.

While most people might think that this syndrome is caused only by cold water, this isn’t actually the case! People who are exposed to warm water for a long period of time are susceptible to immersion syndrome, too.

Trench foot, tropical immersion foot, and warm water immersion foot are three different varieties of immersion syndrome.

Why Is it Dangerous?

In its most severe stages, immersion syndrome can cause long-term side effects. These side effects are what make this condition potentially very harmful, especially when left untreated.

For example, the most severe cases of immersion syndrome can progress to gangrene. This may require amputation of the affected limb or body part.


Permanent scarring and nerve pain are other possible long-lasting symptoms that may result from advanced cases of this condition.

Finally, it could also become permanently painful to walk due to nerve damage.


There are many symptoms that can accompany immersion syndrome. A lot of these symptoms can change and become more or less severe depending on the length of time that your skin was exposed.

Numbness and swelling are two fairly common symptoms in both mild and severe cases of immersion syndrome.

These symptoms may also be accompanied by itching or tingling in the affected area.

Color and Odor

Additionally, the damaged area of your body may develop an odor. In more advanced cases, this odor will smell like decay because the tissue is dying.

Your skin may also turn different colors, usually red or blue. This color change occurs because circulation has decreased, and blood is not reaching that area of the body as well.

Your skin can become wrinkled or pruney, kind of like when you’ve spent too much time in the bathtub, but even worse than that.


Sometimes blisters or sores may develop on your skin. Relatedly, in the most extreme cases, foot maceration can occur. Foot maceration is a condition where large blisters form.

Eventually, your skin begins to separate from the affected area, which exposes raw, sensitive skin. This can lead to severe pain when touching or putting pressure on that skin.

Stages of Immersion Syndrome

There are four main stages of immersion syndrome. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you may not progress through all the stages if your case isn’t too severe.

The first stage of immersion syndrome, stage one, happens while you’re still exposed as well as directly after exposure.

You may experience numbness, cold, and swelling, and you may also not be able to find a pulse in your feet.

During the next stage, stage two, you may encounter more swelling, and it’s likely that your pain will increase.

Swollen Foot

Stage three takes place approximately seven to ten days after exposure. Your swelling and pain will decrease, but it may still persist to a certain degree, depending on the severity of your symptoms.

Stage four, the final stage of immersion syndrome, occurs many weeks after exposure. Your original symptoms will likely have subsided, but your feet may be particularly sensitive to cold or hot temperatures. In especially severe cases, any large blisters or gangrene will also have appeared already at this point.


The most effective prevention strategy for immersion syndrome is to go indoors as soon as possible to keep yourself warm and dry. If you’re in a survival situation and don’t have access to shelter, though, there are other tactics you can adopt to keep your symptoms from worsening.

The key to preventing immersion syndrome while still outdoors is to keep your feet as dry as possible.

If you’re able to move to an area where the ground is less damp or where the water is more shallow, then you should do so.

Removing wet clothing is another crucial prevention move if you’re able to adopt it. Change your socks and shoes if you can, or at least remove your wet socks if it will significantly reduce your exposure to any dampness.

Finally, you’ll want to reduce swelling as much as possible so that blood can circulate through your body as easily as possible.

Elevate your feet above the rest of your body if they’re swollen.


The ways to treat immersion syndrome vary a little based on the severity of the exposure. However, the key treatment advice is the same no matter how long you’ve been experiencing symptoms: rewarming, gauging the severity of your exposure, and pain management.

For any instance of immersion syndrome, it’s crucial that the very first thing you do is get dry and warm. Dry off your feet first, and then start warming them up again. Be sure not to massage the affected area, though, because this may irritate any blisters or sores that have developed.

It’s also important that you not warm up your body too suddenly but rewarm it gradually instead.

Speaking to a Doctor

In most moderate to severe cases, it’s important to seek medical attention so that doctors can confirm the diagnosis. They know how to monitor you so that they’re prepared to treat any further symptoms that may arise.

In less severe cases, you may not have to go to the hospital. For these situations, taking ibuprofen for pain management is one of the best treatment strategies.

Keeping Yourself Safe from Immersion Syndrome

Now that you know all about what immersion syndrome is and how to prevent it, you’ll be able to protect yourself from it if you ever come into contact with water for way too long!

If you want to learn more about how to keep yourself safe from other exposure to nature, check out our Safety page.