Introduction 

A leg ulcer is a long-lasting (chronic) sore on your leg or foot that takes more than four to six weeks to heal. They most often develop on the inside of the leg, just above the ankle.

The symptoms of a venous leg ulcer include pain, itching and swelling in the affected leg. There may also be discoloured or hardened skin around the ulcer, and the sore may produce a foul-smelling discharge.

See your GP if you think you have a leg ulcer, as it will not heal on its own. Your GP will examine your leg and may carry out additional tests to rule out other conditions.

Read more about how a venous leg ulcer is diagnosed.

What causes venous leg ulcers?

A venous leg ulcer is the most common type of leg ulcer, accounting for over 90% of all cases.

Venous leg ulcers can develop after a minor injury, where persistently high pressure in the veins of the legs has damaged the skin.

Read more about the causes of venous leg ulcers.

Who is affected

Venous leg ulcers are estimated to affect around 1 in 500 people in the UK, although they become much more common with age. It's estimated that around 1 in 50 people over the age of 80 has one.

You are more at risk of developing one if you find it difficult to move around because of a problem such as osteoarthritis, a leg fractureobesity or paralysis. You are also more at risk if you have recently had an operation on your leg, such as a hip replacement or knee replacement.

People with varicose veins (swollen and enlarged veins) also have a higher risk of developing venous leg ulcers.

How venous leg ulcers are treated

Most venous leg ulcers will heal within three to four months if they are treated by a healthcare professional trained in compression therapy for leg ulcers. However, some ulcers may take longer to heal, and a very small number never heal.

Treatment usually involves cleaning and dressing the wound and using compression bandages to improve the flow of blood in the legs. Antibiotics may also be used if the ulcer becomes infected, but they do not help uninfected ulcers heal.

However, unless the underlying cause of the ulcer is addressed, there is a high risk of a venous leg ulcer recurring after treatment. Underlying causes could include immobility, obesity or varicose veins.   

Read more about treating venous leg ulcers.

Can venous leg ulcers be prevented?

There are several ways to help prevent a venous leg ulcer, such as the long-term use of compression stockings, losing weight if you are obese, exercising regularly and elevating your leg when possible.

This is particularly important if you have previously had a leg ulcer – once a leg has suffered a venous ulcer, there is a significant chance of further ulcers developing within a few months or years.

Read more about preventing venous leg ulcers.

Venous leg ulcers most often develop on the inside of the leg, just above the ankle 

Other types of leg ulcer

Other common types of leg ulcer include:

  • arterial leg ulcers – caused by poor blood circulation in the arteries
  • diabetic leg ulcers – caused by the high blood sugar associated with diabetes
  • vasculitic leg ulcers – associated with chronic inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
  • traumatic leg ulcers – caused by injury to the leg
  • malignant leg ulcers – caused by a tumour of the skin of the leg

Page last reviewed: 26/03/2014

Next review due: 26/03/2016