Varicose veins are swollen and enlarged veins that usually occur on the legs and feet. They may be blue or dark purple, and are often lumpy, bulging or twisted in appearance.
Other symptoms include:
- 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 if you rest and raise your legs.
When to see a GP
If you have varicose veins and they do not cause you any discomfort, you may not need to visit a GP.
Varicose veins are rarely a serious condition and do not usually require treatment.
But speak to a GP if:
- your varicose veins are causing you pain or discomfort
- the skin over your veins is sore and irritated
- the aching in your legs is causing irritation at night and disturbing your sleep
Causes of varicose veins
Varicose veins develop when the small valves inside the veins stop working properly.
In a healthy vein, blood flows smoothly to the heart. The blood is prevented from flowing backwards by a series of tiny valves that open and close to let blood through.
If the valves weaken or are damaged, the blood can flow backwards and collect in the vein, eventually causing it to be swollen and enlarged (varicose).
Certain things can increase your chances of developing varicose veins, such as:
- being female
- having a close family member with varicose veins
- being older
- being overweight
- having a job that involves long periods of standing
- being pregnant
- other conditions
Read about the causes of varicose veins
Treating varicose veins
If treatment is necessary, your doctor may first recommend using compression stockings, taking regular exercise and elevating the affected area when resting.
If your varicose veins are still causing you pain or discomfort, or they cause complications, they can be treated in several ways.
The most common treatment options include:
- endothermal ablation – where heat is used to seal affected veins
- sclerotherapy – this uses special foam to close the veins
- ligation and stripping – the affected veins are surgically removed
It’s unlikely you’ll receive treatment on the NHS for cosmetic reasons – you’ll have to pay for cosmetic treatment privately.
If you do feel you require treatment, it might help if you print out treatment options for varicose veins to discuss with the GP.
Preventing varicose veins
There’s little evidence to suggest you can stop varicose veins getting worse or completely stop new ones developing.
But there are ways to ease symptoms of existing varicose veins, such as:
- avoiding standing or sitting still for long periods and trying to move around every 30 minutes
- taking regular breaks throughout the day, raising the legs on pillows while resting to ease discomfort
- exercising regularly – this can improve circulation and help maintain a healthy weight
Types of varicose veins
There are several types of varicose veins, such as:
- trunk varicose veins – these are near to the surface of the skin and are thick and knobbly; they’re often long and can look unpleasant
- reticular varicose veins – these are red and sometimes grouped close together in a network
- telangiectasia varicose veins – also known as thread veins or spider veins, these are small clusters of blue or red veins that sometimes appear on your face or legs; they’re harmless and, unlike trunk varicose veins, do not bulge underneath the surface of the skin
Swollen ankles, feet and legs (oedema)
Swelling in the ankles, feet or legs often goes away on its own. See a GP if it does not get better in a few days.
Common causes of swollen ankles, feet and legs
Swelling in the ankles, feet and legs is often caused by a build-up of fluid in these areas, called oedema.
Oedema is usually caused by:
- standing or sitting in the same position for too long
- eating too much salty food
- being overweight
- being pregnant
- taking certain medicines – such as some blood pressure medicines, contraceptive pills, hormone therapy, antidepressants or steroids
Oedema can also be caused by:
- an injury – such as a strain or sprain
- an insect bite or sting
- problems with your kidneys, liver or heart
- a blood clot
- an infection
Check if you have oedema
Symptoms of oedema include:
- Swollen or puffy ankles, feet or legs.
- Changes in skin colour, discomfort, stiffness and dents when you press on the skin.
How to ease swelling yourself
Swelling in your ankles, feet or legs should go away on its own, but there are some things you can try to help.
- raise your legs or the swollen area on a chair or pillows when you can
- get some gentle exercise, like walking, to improve your blood flow
- wear wide, comfortable shoes with a low heel and soft sole
- wash, dry and moisturise your feet to avoid infections
- do not stand or sit for long periods of time
- do not wear clothes, socks or shoes that are too tight
See a GP if:
1 or both of your ankles, foot or legs are swollen and:
- it has not improved after treating it at home for a few days
- it gets worse