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Leg ulcers

3-minute read

Leg ulcers are deep sores in the leg that often take a long time to heal. They are very common, especially among older people – affecting around 1 to 2 people in every 100 at some point in their lifetime. It’s important to see a doctor if you think you have a leg ulcer.

What are leg ulcers?

Leg ulcers, sometimes called venous leg ulcers, are deep sores in the skin or membranes of the leg. Unlike a graze, which only affects the first few layers of skin, an ulcer means the whole thickness of skin is lost. 

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 causes leg ulcers? 

The most common cause of leg ulcers is high blood pressure in the legs, which can be caused by diseases of the veins, a blood clot or varicose veins. Fluid leaks from the abnormal veins and this eventually leads to the skin breaking down.

Other causes include:

Older people are more at risk of developing a leg ulcer. You are also more at risk if you have diabetes or high blood pressure, if you are obese, or if you are a smoker.

Symptoms of leg ulcers

The main symptom of a leg ulcer is a deep sore on your leg. It might weep with bad-smelling fluid. The skin around the ulcer might be dry or there might be a rash. It might also be coloured brown.

Sometimes a leg ulcer can get infected. If this happens, symptoms include:

  • swelling
  • pain that gets worse
  • pus
  • a fever

See your doctor if you think your leg ulcer is infected.

Treatment of leg ulcers

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. 

Living with leg ulcers

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 or diabetes under control
  • wear compression stockings
  • keep your legs raised whenever you can
  • exercise regularly

Further sources of help and information

For more information about leg ulcers, you can visit these websites:

Last reviewed: April 2019

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