What are leg ulcers?
Leg ulcers, sometimes called venous leg ulcers, are deep sores in the skin or membranes of the leg that often take a long time to heal. Unlike a graze, which only affects the first few layers of skin, an ulcer means the whole thickness of skin is lost. They are very common, especially among older people. It is important to see a doctor if you think you have a leg ulcer.
Ulcers can take a long time to heal — sometimes weeks or months — usually because there is poor circulation to the leg. When they do heal, they always leave a scar. Unfortunately, leg ulcers often come back.
Leg ulcers are the most common wounds in Australia. About 1 or 2 people in every 100 will develop a leg ulcer at some time in their lives.
What are the symptoms of leg ulcers?
The main symptom of a leg ulcer is a deep sore on the leg. You might also have:
- bad-smelling fluid weeping from the wound
- dry skin around the ulcer or a rash
- brown skin or blotchy around the ulcer
- pain and swelling that feels better when you raise your leg
Sometimes a leg ulcer can get infected. If this happens, symptoms include:
- pain that gets worse
- a fever
See your doctor if you think your leg ulcer is infected.
What causes leg ulcers?
The most common type of leg ulcer is a venous leg ulcer. It is caused by persistently high pressure in the veins of the legs, which can be due to diseases of the veins, a blood clot or when varicose veins have damaged the skin. Fluid leaks from the abnormal veins and this eventually leads to the skin breaking down.
Other causes include:
- peripheral vascular disease (blocked arteries)
- some skin conditions
- injury to the leg
- an infection
How are leg ulcers treated?
Your doctor will examine you to see what sort of leg ulcer you have and what has caused it. Depending on the type of leg ulcer, you will need a special dressing and a bandage or a compression stocking over the ulcer.
Raising the leg will lower the pressure in the veins. It will help the leg ulcer to heal if you raise your leg whenever you can, so it's above the level of your heart.
If the ulcer is infected, you may need antibiotics.
Your doctor may also treat underlying vein conditions that caused the ulcer to happen. Sometimes, this might involve surgery.
Can leg ulcers be prevented?
You are more likely to get a leg ulcer if you are obese, immobile and have ankle or leg swelling due to another condition.
Leg ulcers tend to come back. If you are living with a leg ulcer, or want to prevent another one from forming, you can:
- quit smoking
- lose weight
- get your hypertension (high blood pressure) or diabetes under control
- wear compression stockings
- keep your legs raised whenever you can
- exercise regularly
Resources and support
For more information about leg ulcers, you can visit these websites:
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Last reviewed: April 2021