What are varicose veins?

A photo of Naveen Puri
Medical Director, Bupa UK Insurance
05 January 2023
Next review due January 2026

Varicose veins are swollen, enlarged veins that usually appear on your legs. For most people they don’t cause any symptoms. Here, I talk about what treatments are available for varicose veins and offer some self-help tips to improve your symptoms.

person running outdoors

What causes varicose veins?

Varicose veins happen when blood doesn’t flow properly through the veins closest to the surface of your skin.

We all have valves inside our veins that help blood flow in the right direction. If you have varicose veins, the valves don’t work as they should. This makes blood gather in the veins near the surface of the skin. It also increases the pressure on your veins and makes them swell.

When this happens, veins become visible through your skin. You’re more likely to get varicose veins if you’re a woman, and as you get older.

If you can see fine veins on other parts of your body, like your nose or cheeks, these might be telangiectasias (also known as thread or spider veins). They generally don’t cause any health problems. Speak to your doctor for more information on spider vein treatment.

What are the symptoms of varicose veins?

You might only know you have varicose veins because of the visible veins in your legs. But if you do have other symptoms, they can include:

  • an aching or heavy feeling in your legs
  • cramping, especially at night
  • restless legs
  • itching or burning in the skin over your veins
  • swollen feet and ankles
  • itchy, red, scaly or flaky skin on your legs (known as varicose eczema)

Varicose veins can sometimes bleed. If this happens visit your doctor.

Symptoms tend to be worse after standing up for a long time. You might also find they’re worse during your period, if you have one.

Varicose veins are also common during pregnancy. They aren’t harmful to your baby and you might find that they improve after pregnancy.

If your symptoms are affecting you, visit your doctor to see how they can help.

Are varicose veins dangerous?

Varicose veins are generally not dangerous, and complications are unlikely. But, they can increase your risk of:

  • superficial vein thrombosis (when a blood clot forms in the veins close to the surface of the skin, making them hard, red and painful)
  • bleeding
  • venous leg ulcers (open wounds) on your legs
  • deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – when a blood clot forms in a deep vein

Can varicose veins go away without treatment?

It’s unlikely that varicose veins will go away without treatment. But, there are a few things you can do that might reduce your symptoms.

  • Try losing any excess weight.
  • Increase the amount of activity you do.
  • Try not to stand up or sit down for long periods of time.
  • Keep your legs slightly raised when you do sit down.
  • Wear compression stockings (only if you’re not having any other treatment).
  • If you have dry or itchy skin on your lower legs, special moisturisers can help. Ask your doctor or local pharmacist.

What treatments are available for varicose veins?

For most people, varicose veins don’t cause any health problems. But, if you’re unhappy with the way they look, there are treatments available.

Endothermal ablation is often used to treat varicose veins. It uses radio waves or lasers to seal the veins and improve their appearance.

Surgery is also an option. A surgeon can tie off and remove the varicose veins to stop blood flowing through them.

Sclerotherapy can also improve their appearance. A chemical foam is injected into the affected veins, which damages the varicose veins and makes them close up.

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A photo of Naveen Puri
Dr Naveen Puri
Medical Director, Bupa UK Insurance

    • Varicose veins. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised February 2020.
    • Sandean DP, Winters R. Spider Veins. 2022 Sep 19. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan. Bookshelf ID: NBK563218.
    • Varicose veins. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised February 2020.
    • BMJ Best Practice. Topics. Varicose veins: approach, accessed October 2022.
    • Medscape. Varicose Veins and Spider Veins: overview. Last updated September 2020.
    • Varicose veins: complications. BMJ. Best Practice., accessed October 2022.
    • Venous eczema. British Association of Dermatologists. accessed October 2022.

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