The Independent Pharmacy

What Is Varicose Eczema?

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 13 Oct 2023

Varicose eczema is a long-lasting or recurring skin condition that’s common among people with varicose veins and older persons — roughly 70% of people aged over 70 have varicose eczema.

We explain what varicose eczema is, what it looks like and how you can treat this condition. We’ve included links to some of the medications you can use to treat varicose eczema, so you can get a clear idea of what treatment you need.

What’s varicose eczema?

Varicose eczema is a long-term skin condition that causes itchy, swollen, dry, flaky, scaly and/or crusty skin on your lower legs.

As the name implies, varicose eczema is common among people who have varicose veins. Varicose eczema is also known as stasis eczema, stasis dermatitis, gravitational eczema or venous eczema.

What causes varicose eczema?

Increased pressure in your leg veins is the main cause of varicose eczema.

This is why your GP will ask you if you have any issues with blood flow in your leg veins if you see them for a consultation to discuss your potential varicose eczema. GPs use the ankle-brachial pressure index (ABPI) to establish if you have issues with your blood vessels.

Your blood can be pushed upwards if the small valves in your veins aren’t working properly. The result is venous insufficiency and this causes your blood to leak backwards, increasing pressure in your veins and causing fluid to drain into the tissue surrounding your veins. Your immune system reacts to this fluid and it’s believed that this reaction leads to varicose eczema.

If you consult with a GP to establish if you have varicose eczema, it’s likely they’ll ask you if you’ve ever had any of the following health issues:

  • Injury or surgery to your legs
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) — a blood clot
  • Varicose veins
  • Leg ulcers
  • Cellulitis

In addition to having had any of the above health problems, the below factors can be a factor in causing varicose eczema:

  • Gender — it’s more common for women to get varicose eczema
  • Being stationary for a long period of time
  • Getting older
  • Pregnancy*
  • Obesity

*Regarding pressure on your leg veins, pregnancy can lead varicose veins to develop but they’re usually harmless for most women.

What does varicose eczema look like?

Varicose eczema appears as crusty, scaly, flaky, dry, swollen and/or itchy skin. It manifests as brown, red, grey or purple patches on your skin, which can be difficult to see.

Varicose eczema can cause your legs to swell up, leading to swollen and enlarged veins. This is particularly true after extended periods of standing or at the end of the day.

These are some of the other common symptoms of varicose eczema:

  • Eczema on other parts of your body
  • White scars (atrophie blanche)
  • Hardened skin
  • Tender skin
  • Tight skin
  • Pain

If you think you’re developing varicose eczema, you should get treatment as soon as possible. Untreated varicose eczema can cause you to develop a single leg ulcer or multiple leg ulcers. These ulcers could result in osteomyelitis or septicemia and (in the worst cases) may result in your leg being amputated.

How do I know if I have early-stage varicose eczema?

Changes to your skin are the first sign you might have early-stage varicose eczema. These are the changes you should look for:

  • Brown patches on your skin
  • Purple patches on your skin
  • Grey patches on your skin
  • Red patches on your skin
  • Swollen skin
  • Crusty skin
  • Scaly skin
  • Flaky skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Dry skin

If you’ve experienced any of these changes to your skin, you should speak with a doctor, GP or pharmacist immediately to establish if you have early-stage varicose eczema.

What’s the best treatment for varicose eczema

There are four main treatment types for varicose eczema: self-help, compression stockings, emollients and topical corticosteroids. We cover each of these in more detail in the following sections, explaining what the treatments are and highlighting examples of them:

Self-help methods for treating varicose eczema

Self-help methods for treating varicose eczema are all about taking natural steps to soothe your skin condition by improving the blood circulation in your legs. These are some of the self-help methods you can use to treat varicose eczema:

  • Elevating your legs frequently
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Stopping smoking

If you have very poor blood flow then trying the self-help methods above could help improve your circulation.

Compression stockings for treating varicose eczema

Compression stockings are tights you wear every day that are designed to help improve your circulation. They squeeze your legs firmly at your ankle and foot before loosening higher up your leg. This improves your circulation by gently pushing blood up your leg.

If you’re looking for an effective way to relieve symptoms, compression stockings could help with your varicose eczema.

Emollients for treating varicose eczema

Emollients are moisturisers that soften, hydrate, freshen, lubricate and protect your skin. They are available as creams, ointments or lotions.

The NHS recommends you apply emollients to your skin twice a day when you have varicose eczema, even if you’re not experiencing any symptoms.

These are some of the emollients you can use to treat your varicose eczema:

Emollient creams

Emollient ointments

Emollient lotions

Topical corticosteroids for treating varicose eczema

Topical corticosteroids (topical steroid creams) are effective at treating flare-ups of varicose eczema. These treatments are applied directly to your skin to reduce the skin inflammation caused by your varicose eczema.

Topical corticosteroids come in different levels of strength and are available on prescription from a doctor or pharmacist.

Weaker Topical Corticosteroid Preparations:

Potent Topical Corticosteroid Preparations:

Complete an online consultation to get prescription varicose eczema treatment

Over-the-counter treatments (creams, oils and ointments) can be effective at treating mild cases of varicose eczema. If you have a severe case of varicose eczema then you can complete an online consultation and get prescription treatment for your condition with The Independent Pharmacy.

Alternatively, you can speak to one of our qualified medical experts, who can offer advice about choosing the most suitable treatment for discoid eczema.

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