Varicose eczema

Varicose eczema is a long-term skin condition that affects the lower legs. It's common in people with varicose veins. Varicose eczema tends to be a long-term problem. Treatments are available to help keep it under control. See your GP if you have symptoms of the condition, see below.

Symptoms of varicose eczema

Like all types of eczema, the affected skin becomes:

  • itchy
  • red and swollen
  • dry and flaky 
  • scaly or crusty

There may be periods when these symptoms improve and periods when they become more severe.

Your legs may become swollen, especially towards the end of the day or after long periods of standing. Varicose veins (swollen and enlarged veins) are often visible on the legs.

Some people also have other symptoms, such as:

  • brown discolouration of the skin
  • red, tender and tight skin that can eventually become hardened
  • small, white scars
  • pain
  • eczema affecting other parts of the body

Left untreated, leg ulcers can develop. These are long-lasting wounds that form where the skin has become damaged.

When to see your GP

See your GP if you have symptoms of varicose eczema. They'll often be able to make a diagnosis simply by looking at the skin.

Your GP will also ask you questions to find out whether you have a problem with the flow of blood in your leg veins, as this is the main cause of varicose eczema.

To help make a diagnosis, your GP may want to know if you have a history of:

  • varicose veins – swollen and enlarged veins
  • deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – a blood clot in one of the deep veins of your legs
  • leg ulcers – areas of damaged skin that take several weeks to heal
  • cellulitis – an infection of the deeper layers of the skin and underlying tissue
  • surgery or injury to your legs

Your GP may also check the pulse in your feet. They may also carry out an ankle brachial pressure index (ABPI) test to see if compression stockings are suitable for you.

You may be referred to a specialist in a hospital for further tests. This might be a vascular specialist (a doctor or surgeon specialising in conditions affecting the blood vessels) or a dermatologist (a specialist in skin conditions).

Causes of varicose eczema

Varicose eczema is usually caused by increased pressure in the leg veins.

When the small valves in the veins stop working properly, it's difficult for blood to be pushed upwards against gravity and it can leak backwards.

This increases the pressure in the veins.

Varicose eczema is more common in people with varicose veins. Varicose veins are also often a sign the leg veins aren't working properly.

Some people develop the condition for no obvious reason.  There are also certain factors that increase the chances of developing the condition. These include:

  • gender – varicose eczema is more common in women
  • obesity – this can increase the pressure in your leg veins
  • pregnancy – this can also increase the pressure in your leg veins
  • not being able to move for a long period of time – this can affect the circulation in your leg veins
  • having previously had deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – blood clots that develop in leg veins, which can damage the valves in your veins
  • increasing age – people generally find it harder to move about as they get older, which can affect their circulation

Treating varicose eczema

For most people, treatment for varicose eczema involves a combination of:

  • self-help measures – including ways to improve your circulation, such as keeping active and raising your legs often
  • emollients – moisturisers applied to the skin to stop it becoming dry
  • topical corticosteroids – ointments and creams applied to the skin to help treat the eczema and relieve symptoms - treatment periods are limited to short periods to prevent side effects
  • compression stockings – specially designed stockings, usually worn every day, that squeeze your legs tightly at the foot and ankle and become looser further up your leg, helping to improve your circulation

If these treatments don't help, your GP may refer you to a skin or vascular specialist depending on your symptoms.

Other types of eczema

Eczema is the name for a group of skin conditions that cause dry, irritated skin. Other types of eczema include:

  • atopic eczema (also called atopic dermatitis) – the most common type of eczema
  • contact dermatitis – a type of eczema that occurs when the body comes into contact with a particular substance
  • discoid eczema – a type of eczema that occurs in circular or oval patches on the skin

 

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information, read terms and conditions.

This page was published February 2018

This page is due for review January 2020

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