Varicose veins are swollen, twisted blood vessels that bulge just under the skin’s surface. They are blue or purple and usually appear in the legs, feet and ankles. They can be painful or itchy. Spider veins may surround varicose veins. Spider veins are smaller red or purple lines that appear close to the skin’s surface.
Although they can be unsightly and uncomfortable, varicose veins aren’t dangerous for most people. In some cases, severe varicose veins can lead to serious health problems, such as blood clots. You can relieve most varicose vein symptoms at home. Or your healthcare provider can treat them with injections, laser therapy and surgery.
A vein is a blood vessel that carries blood to your heart from tissues throughout your body. When a vein works as it should, valves (flaps that open and close) inside the vein keep blood flowing in only one direction — toward the heart.
Veins can be damaged by disease and injury. During the aging process, veins naturally lose elasticity and become less flexible.
Varicose veins and spider veins are both types of venous disease, but they look different. Spider veins are smaller and thinner than varicose veins. They look like a red or blue spider webs or branches of a tree, and they are close to the skin’s surface.
Spider veins aren’t usually painful. They can appear anywhere on the body, most often behind the knee, on the feet or on the face. Varicose veins usually appear on the feet and legs.
Anyone can develop varicose veins, but women are more likely to have them than men. Certain factors increase your chances of developing varicose veins, including:
Varicose veins are very common. Around one-third of all adults have varicose veins. They are more common in women than in men.
Varicose veins occur when the walls of veins become weakened. As blood pressure in the vein increases, the weakened walls allow the vein to get bigger. As the vein stretches, the valves in the vein can’t work like they should. Sluggish blood backs up or pools in the vein, causing the vein to swell, bulge and twist.
Vein walls and valves can become weak for several reasons, including:
The most recognizable sign of varicose veins is a gnarled, blue or purple vein just under the skin’s surface. Symptoms include:
Most often, varicose veins develop on the lower half of the body, usually on the calves, ankles and feet. They can also develop in the pelvic area (pelvic congestion syndrome), especially in women who have had children. Varicose veins in the testicles (varicocele) can lead to infertility in men.
Varicose veins are close to the surface of the skin and easy to see. Healthcare providers can diagnose the condition during a physical examination. Your provider will feel the veins and examine them while you’re sitting and standing.
To see detailed images of the veins and check for complications, your healthcare provider may recommend an ultrasound. This safe, painless test uses sound waves to produce pictures of tissues inside the body. Ultrasounds can show blood clots and how the valves are working.
There isn’t a cure for varicose veins. These treatments can reduce their appearance and relieve discomfort:
You may not be able to prevent varicose veins. You can reduce your chances of developing them by living an active, healthy lifestyle. Healthcare providers recommend many of the same measures to prevent and treat varicose veins:
Usually, varicose veins are not dangerous and don’t cause long-term health problems. Most people with the condition are concerned with the way varicose veins look. They may experience discomfort but don’t develop complications.
Varicose veins can cause ulcers (open sores), bleeding and skin discoloration if left untreated. Severe varicose veins may be a sign of chronic venous insufficiency. This condition affects the veins’ ability to pump blood to the heart.
People who have varicose veins may be more likely to develop blood clots. It’s important to tell your healthcare provider about varicose veins. Your provider should evaluate and monitor you for clotting disorders such as:
Although treatments are effective, varicose veins can return. They are more likely to come back in women who become pregnant after treatment. You have a higher chance of varicose veins reappearing if you are overweight or have a sedentary lifestyle.
Although varicose veins aren’t usually dangerous, you should visit your healthcare provider for an exam. If you’re concerned about how varicose veins look, or if they’re uncomfortable, treatments can help. You should see your provider as soon as possible if the skin or veins are:
Millions of people live with varicose veins. For most people, varicose veins don’t cause serious health problems. Lifestyle changes and at-home remedies can relieve symptoms and prevent them from getting worse. Talk to your healthcare provider about safe, minimally invasive treatments that reduce pain and improve the appearance of varicose veins.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/13/2020.