Avoiding and treating blisters

Many rowers get blisters, particularly in the first few months – later the hands develop calluses (hard skin) and you also learn to hold the blade/sculls so as to minimise the movement that causes blisters. There are many old wives’ tales about the best way to treat blisters, often dating from the days of wooden handles and once-a-week outings, and all old hands have their personal tips. This is a compendium of current advice from a range of sources; real masochists can just search online for “rowing blisters” for further reading.

1. Avoidance

You CAN avoid getting blisters – don’t wait until the blister “pops” and then deal with it, and the associated infection. In 2010 Olympic rower Andy Holmes died from an infection (leptospirosis) contracted through blisters on his hands – so this matters!

  • Keep your skin healthy – stay hydrated, eat healthily, use hand-cream if your hands are dry or chapped
  • You can use Surgical Spirit to help your hands and fingers to harden – but not if you have broken skin or blisters!
  • Always wash your hands before and after outings; take a sterilising gel to regattas. Dirt increases the rubbing which causes blisters.
  • Wash or sterilise blade-handles and scull-grips before and after outings, particularly for club sculls. Look out for signs that someone else who has used them may have had a blister or cut.
  • If possible choose grips that work for you – you will be surprised how much difference there is in diameter, materials and smoothness. Experiment and if you do get sore hands, change!
  • Keep a loose, relaxed grip when rowing or sculling – this is probably the single most important factor in blister prevention. Allow your hands to “breathe” between strokes.
  • If you do get red or painful areas on your hands during an outing, try to loosen or change your grip to avoid a blister developing.
  • If you regularly get sore hands or blisters, and particularly if you are setting off on a long outing, it’s worth taping up your hands as a precautionary measure. Do this at home, not two minutes before the outing: use 25 mm zinc oxide tape (Leukoplast is the best), and do it really carefully, stretching it over the hand in all directions and smoothing the edges down so that it stays in place. Take it off again after the outing so that the skin can breathe normally.

2. Treatment

If you do get a blister, TRY to avoid popping it, at least until you can do it with a sterile needle and wash immediately. If it happens during an outing, it may well burst itself (and will hurt!)

As soon as possible, wash it carefully, apply an antiseptic cream or spray, and dress it during the day (using a plaster or, for larger areas, zinc oxide tape as above but with a dressing pad over the blister or broken skin). Blister dressings (Compeed and similar) are unlikely to stay in place on the palm or fingers, and certainly not while rowing. Remove the dressing in the evening and check there are no signs of infection.

The general rule is to keep it clean and keep it covered. Usually a blister will go down of its own accord within a couple of days; if it does burst then treat as above.

Don’t apply meths or surgical spirit to broken skin – it will not only sting like crazy but will also kill the delicate tissue which is trying to heal! The product label for these products specifically says “Do not use on broken skin”. An antiseptic cream or spray is fine (Savlon Spray Plaster is often recommended and also works for grazes and small cuts).