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Toe rings, tattooed ankles, painted nails, sling-backs, flip-flops, sandals and — freest of free spirits — bare feet. They all blossom on beaches and sidewalks come spring and summer.

When warm weather arrives, the quest for a beautiful foot begins — and specialists are overrun by patients.

Dr. Emanuel Haber, a podiatrist, has seen the quest go to extremes.

Some patients have asked him to narrow their feet, while others want him to shorten their toes so they look better in pointed shoes or sandals. Some patients with flat feet want him to create arches by fusing the joints in their feet — something he doesn't recommend unless the patients are in extreme pain.

About 25 percent of Haber's patients come for cosmetic rather than medical reasons. Most are women.

"Women are more concerned with the overall appearance of their bodies, including their feet, whereas males are not as concerned," he said.

Soap, water best

One of the best ways to keep your feet healthy and attractive is plain old soap and water.

"I find most people, when they shower, don't wash their feet," said Dr. Jeffrey L. Simon. "Make sure to clean between your toes, especially at this time of year."

Lesions, blisters, corns, warts, calluses, skin cracks and odor should be remedied immediately.

But for many healthy Americans, foot problems occur as people begin working out frantically to get in shape for swimsuit season. For them, the arrival of spring brings on heel pain from walking on concrete or training on uphill treadmills, which stretches the Achilles' tendon and causes bone spurs in the heel.

Podiatrists tackle many foot ailments with a variety of lasers, light waves, sound waves, creams, unguents, emollients and prescription drugs and/or surgery.

Fungal nail infections and athlete's foot are a major problem among Simon's patients. "A lot of people coming in say, 'I want to show off my toes, but I've got this yellow fungus!"' he said.

Left untreated, fungus grows not only on the nail but in the nail bed and the nail root. An oral antifungal medication used over several months is effective, Haber said, provided the user is monitored periodically for rare side effects, such as liver damage.

"Probably the most unsightly thing on a foot is a fungal nail," Haber said.

Haber tells his patients to go easy on nail polish. It traps fungus and makes it more difficult to eliminate. Patients who want healthy toenails and feet should use it only for special occasions, he said.

Get the sunblock

"One of the things I do right away is lather suntan lotion on my feet," said Simon, who wears sandals and flip-flops on the sand. Though he tans easily, the tops of his feet are tender after a winter of wearing shoes. Sunburned feet, he said, are "one of the worst hurts you can have."

A non-deodorant anti-perspirant — either roll-on or spray — can take care of sweaty feet, though this condition is often owing to diabetes, nerves or dryness, he said.

Simon also advises that people don't wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row during the summer. Shoes need to air out, he said.

"I'll guarantee I could take a culture of any shoe and grow anything out of it, especially during summer," he said.

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