Introduction 

Varicose veins are swollen and enlarged veins – usually blue or dark purple – that usually occur on the legs. They may also be lumpy, bulging or twisted in appearance.

Other symptoms include:

  • aching, heavy and uncomfortable legs
  • swollen feet and ankles
  • muscle cramp in your legs
  • dry skin and colour changes in the lower leg

Read more about the symptoms of varicose veins.

Your GP can diagnose varicose veins based on these symptoms, although further tests may be carried out.

Read more about diagnosing varicose veins.

Why do varicose veins happen?

Varicose veins develop when the small valves inside the veins stop working properly.

In a healthy vein, blood flows smoothly to the heart. The blood is prevented from flowing backwards by a series of tiny valves that open and close to let blood through.

If the valves weaken or are damaged, the blood can flow backwards and collect in the vein, eventually causing it to be swollen and enlarged (varicose).

Certain things can increase your chances of developing varicose veins, such as:

  • pregnancy
  • being overweight
  • old age

Read more about the causes of varicose veins.

Who is affected?

Varicose veins are a common condition, affecting up to 3 in 10 adults. Women are more likely to develop them than men.

Any vein in the body can become varicose, but they most commonly develop in the legs and feet, particularly in the calves. This is because standing and walking puts extra pressure on the veins in the lower body.

Treating varicose veins

For most people, varicose veins don't present a serious health problem. They may have an unpleasant appearance, but should not affect circulation or cause long-term health problems. Most varicose veins don't require any treatment.

If treatment is necessary, your doctor may first recommend up to six months of using compression stockings, taking regular exercise and elevating the affected area when resting.

If your varicose veins are still causing you pain or discomfort – or they cause complications – they can be treated in several ways, the most common being:

  • endothermal ablation – treatment where heat is used to seal affected veins
  • sclerotherapy – this uses special foam to close the veins
  • ligation and stripping – this involves surgery to remove the affected veins

It's unlikely you'll receive treatment on the NHS for cosmetic reasons – you'll have to pay for this privately.

If you do feel you require treatment, it might help if you print out treatment options for varicose veins to discuss with your GP.

Read more about treating varicose veins and complications of varicose veins.

Preventing varicose veins

There is little evidence to suggest you can stop varicose veins getting worse, or completely prevent new ones developing.

However, there are ways to ease symptoms of existing varicose veins, such as:

  • avoiding standing or sitting still for long periods and trying to move around every 30 minutes
  • taking regular breaks throughout the day, raising the legs on pillows while resting to ease discomfort
  • exercising regularly – this can improve circulation and help maintain a healthy weight

Varicose veins: an animation

Varicose veins are swollen veins that are usually dark blue or purple. This animation explains what causes varicose veins, the symptoms and treatment options.

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

Types of varicose veins

There are several types of varicose veins, such as:

  • trunk varicose veins – these are near to the surface of the skin and are thick and knobbly; they are usually visible, often quite long, and can look unpleasant
  • reticular varicose veins – these are red and are sometimes grouped close together in a network
  • telangiectasia varicose veins – also known as thread veins or spider veins, these are small clusters of blue or red veins that sometimes appear on your face or legs; they are harmless and, unlike trunk varicose veins, do not bulge underneath the surface of the skin

Page last reviewed: 02/09/2014

Next review due: 02/09/2016