Varicose veins are spidery, swollen veins that bump out from beneath the skin. They are usually red or blue and typically appear on the legs, but can also be found in other parts of the body. Smaller varicose veins are called spider veins.
Having varicose veins is common, and women develop them more often than men. They are usually harmless, but in some people, they can lead to serious problems, such as leg swelling and pain, blood clots and skin changes, according to the National Institutes of Health.
In healthy veins, one-way valves keep blood flowing toward the heart. Varicose veins have faulty valves that cause blood to back up and start pooling in the vessels.
The NIH lists these factors that affect the risk of developing varicose veins:
- older age
- being female
- congenital valve defects
- history of blood clots in the legs
- standing or sitting for long periods
- family history of varicose veins
Hormonal changes such as puberty, pregnancy and menopause, as well as birth control or hormone replacement, can also increase the risk.
Symptoms of varicose veins include feelings of fullness, heaviness or aching in the legs, visibly swollen veins, mild swelling of the ankles or feet, and itching. In severe cases, symptoms may include leg swelling, leg pain after long periods of sitting or standing, changes in skin of the legs or ankles, dry and scaly or cracked skin, skin ulcers that don't heal, or thickening and hardening of skin on the legs or ankles.
Those who suspect they may have varicose veins should consult a doctor, who can look for swelling, changes in skin color or sores on the legs. A doctor may also check venous blood flow and check for other problems, such as blood clots.
According to the NIH, doctors may recommend the following self-care measures for managing varicose veins:
- wearing compression stockings to reduce swelling
- avoiding sitting or standing for long periods
- raising your legs above your heart for 15 minutes three to four times per day
- treating any open sores or infections
- losing weight if you're overweight
- getting more exercise (such as walking or swimming)
- moisturizing dry or cracked skin (but consult a doctor first)
For more severe cases, doctors may recommend: laser therapy, sclerotherapy, ablation, vein stripping, valve repair, bypass surgery, or angioplasty and stenting.