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Corns

A corn is a painful area of hardened skin on your foot. Corns develop over bony areas of your foot that are under high pressure, usually caused by poorly fitting shoes, or sometimes from the way that you walk.

About corns

A corn is a type of painful callus (area of hardened skin) on your foot. When your skin is exposed to lots of pressure or friction, it thickens to protect itself and can develop into a callus. Although calluses can cover a wide area, they aren't usually painful.

However, if the pressure is over a bony area, such as a joint in your toe, a small plug of hard skin can form that presses into your skin, sometimes causing pain and swelling – this is a corn.

Corns look different to calluses. There is an area in the middle of them that looks like a see-through plug, surrounded by a margin of tough skin (often white or yellow in colour).

Corns are a common problem and can affect anyone at any age, but are mostly seen in people over 60. They are more common in women, but men may get them too, often depending on the style of shoes they wear. Corns can cause you more serious problems if you have diabetes or poor circulation. Corns aren’t infectious so you can’t pass them onto other people.

Types of corn

There are two main types of corn.

Hard corns
Hard corns are the most common type of corn. They are thickened areas of dry, hardened skin about the size of a pea (or smaller) and dark yellow or white. Hard corns may develop within a broader area of callused skin. They are often found on bony areas, such as the ball of your foot and your toes, most commonly on your fifth toe.

Soft corns
Soft corns are white and rubbery with an indented centre. They can be extremely painful and tend to develop between your toes. They are like hard corns but they have been softened by being moist, usually because you don’t dry between your toes properly or from sweat. Soft corns result from increased friction and pressure as your toes rub together. They may form opposite one another and are known as ‘kissing lesions’.

Sometimes, soft corns can become infected by bacteria or fungi (for example, causing athletes foot).

Other, rarer types of corn include the following.

  • Seed corns. These may appear as one corn or as clusters of small corns on the bottom of your foot. They are usually painless.
  • Neuro and vascular corns. These are hard corns that have blood vessels and nerves inside them so will bleed if they are cut. They tend to be very painful and are often mistaken for verrucas (warts on the sole of your foot).
  • Fibrous corns. These are corns that you may have had for a long time and have become attached to the deeper layers of your skin, sometimes causing you pain.

Symptoms of corns

The main symptoms of corns include:

  • a lump of hard skin over a bony area on your foot
  • soft lumps of skin between your toes
  • pain when you walk or when your shoes put pressure on your corns, sometimes stopping you from doing certain activities

If you have diabetes or poor circulation, it’s very important that you check your feet regularly so that you spot symptoms of a corn early to prevent complications.

These symptoms may be caused by problems other than corns. If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP or podiatrist for advice. Podiatrists are healthcare professionals who specialise in conditions that affect your feet, also known as chiropodists.

Complications of corns

If your corn is left untreated, it can cause your healthy skin to break down underneath and develop into an open wound (ulcer). Sometimes the area will bleed and you may notice your corn has a reddish-brown colour to it. This can particularly be a problem if you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, or are an older person because the ulcer is more likely to become infected and/or not heal very well. See your GP or podiatrist as soon as possible if you have diabetes, are 65 or over, or have a weakened immune system and notice any broken skin, loss of sensation or bruising on your feet. See our frequently asked questions for more about this.

If you have a discoloured or infected corn, for example, if it contains pus or a clear liquid, you may need antibiotics. See your GP or podiatrist straight away if you notice signs of an infection, such as pus or clear liquid coming from your corn.

Causes of corns

Corns are caused by constant pressure or friction on a bony area of your foot, such as on your toe joint. This can happen for a number of different reasons. These include:

  • poorly fitting footwear – for example, if your shoes are too small, cramp your toes or have high heels; this is the most common cause of corns
  • prominent bones due to reduced pads of fat on your feet – the bones can press against your shoes
  • a misshapen foot because your foot or toes have developed unusually, for example, if you have a bunion or a toe that is overly curved (called a claw or hammer toe)

Diagnosis of corns

Your GP or podiatrist will ask about your symptoms and examine your feet. He or she will also ask you about your footwear.

If your corn is a serious problem, for example, if it becomes infected, causes you a lot of pain or if it keeps coming back, your GP may suggest that you visit a registered podiatrist who will assess your footwear, the shape of your feet and the way that you walk.

Corns can be confused with verrucas because they look similar and both can be painful. See our frequently asked question for more information about verrucas.

Treatment of corns

Your GP or podiatrist will try to deal with the underlying cause of your corn to stop it coming back as well as treating your symptoms. There are several ways that corns are treated.

Self-help

Never try to cut out a corn yourself. However, there are some things you can do to help relieve your symptoms. Use a pumice stone to rub away the thickened skin, a little at a time. Do this after you have soaked your foot for about 20 minutes so that your skin is softer.

If the corn is between your toes, you can buy foam wedges, silicone spacers or use lamb’s wool to place between your toes to help to relieve the pressure.

If you aren't sure how to treat a corn, see your GP or a registered podiatrist.

Footwear
The main cause of corns is wearing shoes that are too small and tight for your feet. You will need to stop wearing any shoes that don’t fit you properly. Your GP or podiatrist can advise you on the best type of shoes to wear but in general they should:

  • be about 1cm longer than your longest toe
  • have a soft upper half
  • have low heels (less than 4cm)
  • have a round and deep enough toe box that provides lots of room for your toes

If you have a corn between your toes or on the outer edge of your fifth toe, you may need wider shoes to give your feet more room.

Medicines

Your GP or podiatrist may apply a special paint to your foot that can break down the hard skin in your corn and soften it. However, these paints contain chemicals that can burn healthy skin so aren't always used. You can buy these over the counter, but there is a risk of them burning your healthy skin. Use corn plasters with care as these may contain acid which, if applied incorrectly to your skin, can burn. Don't use them unless your GP or podiatrist specifically recommend them to you.

Don’t use corn paints or plasters if you have diabetes or poor circulation – seek advice from your GP or podiatrist to find the best way to treat it. Please see our frequently asked questions for more information about treating corns if you have diabetes.

Non-surgical treatments

Foot pads
Your GP or podiatrist may recommend using:

  • foot pads or insoles to relieve and redistribute the pressure on your feet and stop the corn from coming back
  • other corrective made-to-measure foot appliances that can provide long-term relief – this could be padding or strapping to reduce the pressure on your corn

He or she will be able to advise you about what to use and how to fit it.

Removal of your corn
Your podiatrist may use a scalpel to remove the corn. This is a painless procedure and can often completely relieve your pain from the corn. He or she may also advise you to gently rub away the corn using a pumice stone every week to help prevent it coming back.

Injection of artificial fillers
Your podiatrist may suggest injecting an artificial filler such as silicone under your corn. The filler acts like an internal pad under your corn to relieve pain and provide some protection. However, at present, it’s only available in some countries and isn’t widely available in the UK. It may only work for short-term relief, up to one or two years, and you may need booster injections to maintain the effect.

Surgery

If the corn keeps coming back and all other methods haven’t worked for you, surgery might be able to help. For example, if your corn is being caused by a deformity of your foot, an operation to reshape your foot can sometimes prevent it from returning.

Your GP or podiatrist will be able to advise you on whether surgery is necessary.

Prevention of corns

You can help prevent corns by:

  • wearing supportive, low-heeled shoes (maximum 4cm heel) with a rounded toe
  • drying carefully between your toes
  • moisturising only your heels and the ball of your feet and not applying cream between your toes
  • losing excess weight – this may help to reduce the pressure on your feet

 

Produced by Louise Abbott , Bupa Health Information Team, December 2012.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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