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Varicose eczema

Varicose eczema, also known as venous, gravitational or stasis 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. However, treatments are available to help keep it under control.

Symptoms of varicose eczema

Picture of varicose eczema

Like all types of eczema, the affected skin becomes:

On lighter skin it looks red or brown. On darker skin it tends to look dark brown, purple or grey and can be more difficult to see.

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

Your legs may become swollen, especially at 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:

If varicose eczema is not treated, leg ulcers can develop. These are long-lasting wounds that form where the skin has become damaged.

When to get medical advice

See a GP if you have symptoms of varicose eczema. Your doctor will often be able to make a diagnosis simply by looking at your skin.

A GP will also ask you questions to determine 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, a GP may want to know if you have ever had health conditions such as:

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

The ABPI test involves comparing blood pressure readings taken from your ankles and upper arms. A significant difference in the readings suggests a problem with the flow of blood in your arteries – in which case, compression stockings may not be safe to use.

Referral to a specialist

You may be referred to a hospital specialist for further tests. You might see a doctor or surgeon who specialises in conditions affecting blood vessels (vascular specialist), or a doctor who specialises in skin conditions (dermatologist) if:

Causes of varicose eczema

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

When 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, which can cause fluid to leak into the surrounding tissue. It's thought that varicose eczema may develop as a result of the immune system reacting to this fluid.

Varicose eczema is more common in people with varicose veins, as these are also often a sign that the leg veins are not working properly.

Some people develop the condition for no obvious reason, although there are some factors that increase the chance of this happening, including:

Treating varicose eczema

For most people, treatment involves a combination of:

If these treatments do not help, a GP may refer you to a skin specialist (dermatologist) in case there's another cause for your symptoms, or if they're concerned you may also have contact dermatitis.

If you have varicose veins, you may be referred to a doctor or surgeon specialising in conditions affecting the blood vessels (vascular specialist) who can talk to you about the treatment options for varicose veins.

Find out more about treating varicose eczema.

Other types of eczema

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