What are corns and calluses?
Corns and calluses are a buildup of hard, thick areas of skin. Although these hardened areas of skin can form anywhere on your body, you’ll usually see them on your feet, hands or fingers.
Corns tend to be small and round. You are most likely to see corns on the tops or sides of your toes. There are several types of corns:
- Hard corns: These are small, hard dense areas of skin usually within a larger area of thickened skin. Hard corns usually form on the top of toes – areas where there is bone pressure against the skin.
- Soft corns: These corns are whitish/gray and have a softer, rubbery texture. Soft corns appear between the toes.
- Seed corns: These corns are small and usually form on the bottom of feet.
Corns, typically small and round, form on top (hard corns), sides (soft corns) and bottom (seed corns) of your toes and foot.
Calluses are hard and thick patches of skin. Compared with corns, calluses are larger and have a more irregular (more spread out) shape. You are most likely to see calluses on the bottom of your foot on the bony areas that carry your weight – your heel, big toe, the ball of your foot and along the side of your foot. Some degree of callus formation on the bottom of your foot is normal.
Calluses are also often seen on hands. For instance, calluses form where there is repeated friction or rubbing– like on the tips of fingers of guitar players or the hands of gymnasts, weightlifters, or craftsmen.
Calluses form on the weight-bearing areas of your feet.
How do corns and calluses form?
Corns and calluses develop from repeated friction, rubbing or irritation and pressure on the skin. Corns and calluses typically form on the bony or prominent areas of feet. On the hands, they (more likely calluses) form on the areas where there is ongoing rubbing against the skin.
The hardened layers of skin of corns and calluses are actually your body’s way of protecting the underlying skin from the irritation and pressure.
Who is more likely to get corns or calluses?
You are more likely to develop corns or calluses if:
- You already have medical conditions that change the normal alignment of the bones in your feet. For example, arthritis in your feet, bunions, bone spurs or hammertoes.
- You have one or more of the causes of corns and calluses discussed in this article.
- You walk without socks.
- You wear shoes that are too narrow for your foot.
- You smoke cigarettes.
Are corns and calluses painful?
Corns and calluses may or may not be painful. Some corns and calluses may not be painful when they first develop but then become painful over time as they thicken. The raised areas of skin – especially of corns – can be tender or sensitive to touch or pressure. Calluses tend to be less sensitive to touch than the normal skin around it. Sometimes cracks (called fissures) form in a callus. Fissures can be painful. If you had a corn or callus that becomes infected, you will likely feel pain or at least some discomfort.
What are the complications of having corns and calluses?
Untreated (or unsuccessfully) treated corns and calluses might grow larger in size until you fix what caused them to develop in the first place.
Corns or calluses can become infected. This can be painful and make walking difficult. You may need medical or even surgical treatment.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the most likely causes of corns and calluses?
Corns and calluses have many of the same causes. These include:
- Shoes that don’t fit properly. This is the most common cause of corns on the top of the feet. Shoes that are too tight or have areas that rub against your skin cause shearing, friction and pressure. Women who frequently wear high-heeled shoes often develop calluses on the balls of their feet from the downward pressure on this area when walking.
- Standing, walking or running for long periods of time.
- Physical hobbies, sports activities or work/labor that put pressure on your feet.
- Going barefoot.
- Not wearing socks with footwear.
- Having socks and/or shoe linings that slip and bunch up under your feet while in shoes.
- Walking with improper posture – walking too heavily on the inner or outer edge of your foot.
- Physical hobbies, sports activities or work/labor that cause repeated friction on an area of skin on your hands or fingers.
- Structural foot deformities or altered biomechanics (hammertoes, tailor’s bunions, deformities from birth).
What are the most likely symptoms of corns and calluses?
Common symptoms include:
- Hardened areas of skin where there is repeated friction or pressure on the skin (corns and calluses).
- Small, round, raised bump of hardened skin surrounded by irritated skin (more likely to be a corn).
- Thick, hardened, larger typically more flatten patch of skin (more likely to be callus).
- Less sensitivity to touch than the surrounding skin (more likely to be callus).
- Raised area of bump may be painful or cause discomfort (more likely to be corn).
- Pain, redness, blisters.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are corns and calluses diagnosed?
It’s not difficult to diagnose corns and calluses. No tests are required. A simple visual exam of the skin is usually all that is needed. Your doctor may ask you questions about your job, how much walking and standing you do, and in what activities you participate. If your corn or callus is on your foot, your doctor may ask you to walk to check your posture and the way you walk, ask about your footwear and ask how you take care of your feet.
Management and Treatment
How are corns and calluses treated?
Treatment depends on your symptoms and what caused the corn or callus. For the typical corn or callus, removing the buildup of skin is an effective treatment. Follow these steps:
- Soak the area with the corn or callus (let’s use your foot as an example) in warm water until the skin softens – usually 5 to 10 minutes.
- Wet a pumice stone or emery board.
- While the skin on your foot is still soft, gently move the pumice stone or emery board across the corn or callus to remove dead tissue. Continue to file down the corn or callus, moving the stone or board in one direction. Be careful. Do not remove too much skin. This could lead to bleeding and an infection.
- Apply a moisturizing cream or lotion to the corn or callus and surrounding dead skin every day. Look for products that contain urea, salicylic acid, or ammonium lactate. These ingredients will soften the skin over time.
Other care tips include:
- Surround your corn or callus with donut-style adhesive pads or make your own donut pad from mole skin. (The corn should be in the center hole area of the donut.) Mole skin padding and other corn and callus products can be purchased at your local drugstore. Padding helps protect the corn or callus from irritation and relieves pain and pressure.
- Wear properly sized and shaped footwear. Wear shoes with increased width and height in the toe area. Consider buying footwear at the end of the day when your feet are slightly swollen.
- Keep your toenails trimmed. Long toenails can make your toes push against the top of your shoe causing friction and increased pressure. Cut toenails straight across. Do not round the corners.
- If your corns or calluses are painful, apply a cold pack to reduce the pain and swelling for no more than 10 to 20 minutes at a time.
- Never try to cut out, shave away or remove corns or calluses with a sharp object.
- Do not try to treat corns or calluses if you are a diabetic, have poor circulation, are prone to infections or have delicate skin. See your doctor.
Should I try over-the-counter medications to treat my corns or calluses?
Over-the-counter products used to dissolve corns and calluses contain harsh chemicals. If you aren’t precise in applying the chemical, it can injury the surrounding healthy skin. If you are diabetic, do not self treat. See your doctor due to the foot complications possible with diabetes.
Is surgery ever needed for corns and calluses?
Most corns and calluses can be managed by following the simple tips listed in this article – namely, avoid snug-fitting shoes and removing any corns or calluses with a pumice stone after soaking your feet in warm water.
Surgery may be considered if you have a structural deformity in your foot or toes that results in the repeated development of corns or calluses. In this case, your surgeon may need to remove or realign bone tissue. Other reasons for surgery are if the corns or calluses are extremely painful or if they prevent you from walking comfortably or normally.
Can corns and calluses be prevented?
Feet are an often overlooked part of the body until a problem develops. With a little bit of attention and care, most cases of corns or calluses can be prevented. Things to keep in mind include:
- Wear shoes that are comfortable and fit well. Shoes should support your feet, be well-cushioned and have shock-absorbing soles. The toe area of shoes should have enough length and width so toes are not rubbing against the shoe or other toes. This would also mean avoiding high-heeled narrow-toed shoes that push the toes forward causing them to rub against the shoe or each other. Avoid hard-soled or leather-soled shoes unless they have enough padding (or you add padding) to cushion your feet.
- Wear socks with your footwear. Make sure socks are snug enough that they don’t bunch up under your feet.
- Use cushioned or padded insoles. If you have had corns or calluses in the past, you may want to ask your doctor about customized insoles. These inserts can even out weight-bearing forces on the bottom of your foot to prevent calluses from forming. Also use lamb’s wool (not cotton) between your toes to relieve friction and soften corns.
- Wear gloves when you are doing manual labor or working with heavy or rough materials that can damage the skin on your hands or fingers.
- Inspect your feet daily and keep them clean. Wash your feet in warm soapy water, dry them and apply a moisturizing foot cream. This helps keep your skin soft and supple.
- Keep your toenails trimmed.
- Don’t walk barefoot.
- Apply a daily foot powder to keep your feet dry if you have sweaty feet.
Outlook / Prognosis
After corns and calluses are healed, do they come back?
Since corns and calluses are the result of friction, irritation or pressure against the skin, they can return at any time if the cause has not been fixed. In other words, if poorly-fitted shoes were the cause and you continue to wear these same shoes, the corns and calluses will likely return.
Fortunately, most corns and calluses can be successfully managed at home with a little care and attention. If at any time you are concerned about a growth on your foot, are unsure of what to do or how to treat, and especially if you are a diabetic, prone to infections, or have delicate skin, see your doctor. Your doctor is in the best position to examine your feet, ask about or test for other medical conditions you may have, treat your feet and tell you how to take care of them.
When should you see your doctor if you have corns or calluses?
See your doctor:
- If you have diabetes. People with diabetes can have lack of feeling or peripheral neuropathy making it difficult to detect appropriate pain sensations. Persons with diabetes may have poor blood circulation in their legs and feet, which makes healing more difficult. Corns and calluses could even become infected.
- If you have other underlying diseases or conditions that increase your risk of infection or if you have frail, delicate skin.
- If home treatments do not work to manage your corns or calluses.
- If you think you may have abnormal bone structure or alignment as the reason why corns and calluses have repeatedly formed.
- If your corns or calluses are painful, the pain worsens, or you think the corn or callus has become infected. Signs of infection include redness, pain, swelling, oozing/pus from the corn or callus.
- If your foot pain is intense or you have discomfort when walking and don’t know what might be causing it.