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Varicose veins

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Varicose veins are swollen blood vessels under your skin.
  • They develop if your veins are damaged and blood pools in your legs instead of flowing up to your heart.
  • Varicose veins can cause leg pain and sometimes ulcers or blood clots.
  • If you have varicose veins, avoid standing for long periods, wear compression stockings, try to exercise, and lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Injection therapy, laser and surgery can treat varicose veins.

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are swollen, twisted blood vessels just under your skin. They are most common on the legs and feet.

Healthy leg veins have tiny one-way valves to help blood flow up to your heart. Varicose veins happen when these valves in the veins become damaged or stop working. This causes blood to flow back down your leg and pool in your veins, stretching them.

Blood that collects in varicose veins can flow backwards into smaller blood vessels called capillaries. These enlarge and form ‘spider veins’.

Varicose veins are especially common in pregnancy. Visit the Pregnancy Birth and Baby page for specific information on varicose veins and pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of varicose veins?

Some people don’t notice any symptoms, other than enlarged veins.

Other people with varicose veins may have:

  • aching, throbbing or burning leg pain
  • itch, heaviness, cramping or restless legs
  • swollen ankles
  • darkening of the skin over your ankle
  • an itchy rash, called varicose eczema

Symptoms may be worse at the end of the day or after standing.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Can varicose veins cause any other problems?

If you have varicose veins, you could develop:

  • ulcers — when there is a lot of damage and your skin breaks down
  • bleeding from the affected vein, especially from an injury
  • thrombophlebitis — when blood clots develop and the vein becomes inflamed and painful

If blood clots get into the deeper veins in your leg, you can develop a deep vein thrombosis. Very occasionally these clots can reach your lungs, which is very serious.

Why might I get varicose veins?

Varicose veins become more common as you get older. You are more likely to develop varicose veins if you:

  • have varicose veins in your family
  • are obese
  • are pregnant or going through menopause
  • stand for long periods of time
  • are not physically active
  • have previously had a blood clot or a leg injury

How can my varicose veins be treated?

There are a number of treatment options to ease your symptoms and stop varicose veins getting worse. The best option for you will depend on where your varicose veins are located and how severe they are.

Some treatment options are:

  • sclerotherapy — this involves using a thin needle to inject a chemical into your veins, which blocks them
  • laser or ablation therapy — these treatments use heat to seal the veins
  • surgery — this involves removing veins through cuts in your skin

What can I do to manage varicose veins?

Try not to stand for too long. If this can’t be avoided, try to walk around. Walking makes your leg muscles contract, which helps blood flow up to your heart.

Get some exercise — this helps with blood flow. If you are overweight, losing weight can help.

Your doctor might suggest you wear compression stockings. These create gentle pressure that stops blood pooling in your legs. They must be fitted professionally by someone with training in this field.

When should I see a doctor?

See your doctor if:

  • you are concerned about your varicose veins
  • you would like treatment
  • symptoms bother you
  • you have skin colour changes or varicose eczema
  • you develop complications such as ulcers or thrombophlebitis

Your doctor may refer you to a vascular surgeon.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2022

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