Varicose eczema is a skin condition that mainly occurs in the elderly. It initially causes your skin on the lower legs to become pale red, and then darker red, often becoming stained brown. With varicose eczema, the skin on your lower legs also gets slightly thicker and bumpy. It is not painful but can be a bit itchy. Because your skin is red with varicose eczema, it is often mistaken for an infection. The treatment is to keep your legs up when you’re sitting down, to stay active and to apply moisturizers. Occasionally steroid ointments are used, which are prescribed by a doctor.
What is varicose eczema?
This is the term used for skin changes that happen when the pressure in the veins of the legs increases. You may also hear it called gravitational eczema, stasis eczema or venous eczema.
This is a photo of varicose eczema in an elderly man. It’s an example of long-standing varicose eczema, as seen by the thickened, dark-stained skin:
Varicose eczema symptoms
- The skin looks red and can be slightly shiny (which is why some people mistake varicose eczema for an infection).
- The skin should feel cool to the touch, not warm.
- The skin gets flaky and scaly.
- The skin may also look ‘rusty’ or brown in color.
- The skin, particularly the skin around your ankle, may feel hard or tight.
- You can get little raised bumpy ‘blisters’ in the skin. Sometimes these are hard; other times they might leak a drop of clear fluid if you press them.
- The skin can feel a little itchy (but not very itchy).
- It can feel like your legs are warm, although they are not warm to the touch.
- Generally, it all starts in the skin around the inside of your calf, above your ankle.
What causes varicose eczema?
Varicose eczema is caused when pressure increases in the veins running under the skin and in the deep muscles of the legs. This raised pressure is due to leaky valves in the veins. When the valves are not working well, it is difficult for the blood to flow back up the legs against gravity. So they are more full of blood than they should be, which means the pressure inside them is higher. The increased pressure in the veins makes them leak. Fluid and blood cells leak out of the veins and under the skin. This sets off a reaction under the skin. The effect of this is inflammation of the skin and then eczema. Over time the affected skin becomes harder and discoloured. Because skin with eczema is scaly and can become broken, it is more prone to developing ulcers.
Varicose eczema can also occur after a blood clot (thrombosis) forms in the deep veins.