Varicose veins are swollen and enlarged veins visible under the skin that usually occur on the legs and feet. They may be blue or dark purple and are often lumpy, bulging or twisted in appearance.
Varicose veins usually cause no symptoms but may be associated with:
- aching, heavy and uncomfortable legs
- swollen feet and ankles
- burning or throbbing in your legs
- muscle cramp in your legs, particularly at night
- dry, itchy and thin skin over the affected vein
The symptoms are usually worse during warm weather or if you've been standing up for long periods of time. They may improve when you walk around or raise your legs when resting.
Types of varicose veins
There are several types of varicose veins, such as:
- trunk varicose veins
- reticular varicose veins
- telangiectasia varicose veins
Trunk varicose veins
These are near to the surface of the skin and are thick and knobbly. They're often long and can look unsightly.
Reticular varicose veins
These are red and sometimes grouped close together.
Telangiectasia varicose veins
These are also known as thread veins or spider veins. They are small clusters of blue or red veins. They mostly appear on your legs but may also be found on your face.
They're harmless. Unlike trunk varicose veins, they do not bulge underneath the skin.
Complications from varicose veins
Most people who have varicose veins will not develop complications. If they do, it's usually years after varicose veins first appear.
Possible complications include:
- blood clots in the varicose veins
- chronic venous insufficiency
Varicose veins near the surface of your skin can sometimes bleed if you cut or bump your leg. The bleeding may be difficult to stop.
If this happens, you should:
- lie down
- raise your leg - this is usually enough to stop bleeding
- apply direct pressure to the wound
Urgent advice: Urgent
See your GP immediately if this does not stop the bleeding
Blood clots can form in varicose veins
Blood clots could lead to conditions such as:
- thrombophlebitis – swelling (inflammation) of the veins in your leg
- deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – this can cause pain and swelling in the leg. It may lead to serious complications like pulmonary embolism
Blood clots rarely extend to the deep veins causing a DVT.
Chronic venous insufficiency
A small number of people with varicose veins may develop chronic venous insufficiency. Poor blood flow and drainage from your skin can damage the skin. Prolonged poor blood drainage from the skin on the lower leg can lead to skin injury or damage.
Your skin and blood exchange oxygen, nutrients and waste products. If this stops for a long time, it's known as chronic venous insufficiency.
Chronic venous insufficiency can cause other conditions.
- varicose eczema – a condition that causes your skin to become red, scaly and flaky
- lipodermatosclerosis – this is where your skin on the inside calf above the ankle becomes hardened and tight. You may find it turns a red or brown colour
- venous leg ulcers – usually happens as a result of advanced lipodermatosclerosis
Read about the causes of varicose veins
Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE