Varicose Veins vs. Spider Veins: What’s the Difference?

Varicose veins close up under a magnifying glass

Though they are similar in many respects, recognizing the difference between spider veins and varicose veins is key in order to treat each condition effectively.

If you’re struggling with vein-related issues, you’re not alone — 41% of women will suffer from some form of venous insufficiency by age 50, and 42% of men by age 60.

Although these complications come in many forms, varicose veins and spider veins are two of the most common. So what exactly is the difference between the two conditions, and how can you treat them most effectively?

What Are Spider Veins?

Spider veins can be red, purple, or blue, and they often resemble twisted cords bulging through the skin. They usually appear on the legs, chest, or face, and though they rarely indicate a serious health problem, they can cause uncomfortable sensations like itching and burning.

Much like varicose veins, spider veins are directly caused by a buildup of blood. Veins have valves that act as one-way flaps so that blood doesn’t flow downward with the pull of gravity. If these valves become weak, blood can leak back down and collect, causing veins to enlarge. Spider veins can also be caused by hormonal changes, exposure to sun without sunscreen, or pressure-inducing conditions like constipation or tumors.

What Are Varicose Veins?

At first glance, varicose veins are very similar to spider veins: they tend affect the same demographics (typically older caucasian women), they resemble bulging cords against the skin, and they’re caused by blood backup. Importantly, however, varicose veins are usually blue, red, or flesh-colored, tend to develop only in the legs. They’re also far more likely to cause discomfort in the form of aching or throbbing pain. If you are experiencing aching pain in your legs that gets worse after sitting or standing for an extended duration, or if you are experiencing restless legs and swelling, those may also be signs of varicose veins.

This condition is caused by weak or damaged vein valves, and its incidence is linked to heredity and obesity. Varicose veins are also more prevalent within occupations that involve prolonged periods of standing: nurses, hair stylists, teachers, and factory workers are all at a higher risk of developing them.

The final factor that differentiates varicose veins from spider veins is that they can lead to more serious health problems, including:

  • Sores or skin ulcers
  • Bleeding
  • Superficial thrombophlebitis
  • Deep vein thrombosis

Preventative Measures

Fortunately, there are many actions you can take in order to prevent spider and varicose veins from developing:

  • Wear sunscreen to protect your skin when in direct contact with the sun
  • Reshape your diet to exclude salty foods and include high-fiber foods (fiber reduces constipation, and salty foods can exacerbate swelling)
  • Don’t stand or sit for long periods of time, don’t cross your legs when sitting, exercise regularly to improve leg strength and circulation, and elevate your legs when resting
  • Wear support stockings, and don’t wear restrictive clothing

If your physician recommends a more proactive approach to treatment, it’s likely that their prescription will fall under one of the following categories:

  • Sclerotherapy
  • Endovenous laser treatment
  • Radiofrequency occlusion
  • Surgery
  • Laser treatment

Although there are many lifestyle changes you can and should adopt to manage the symptoms of venous insufficiency, it’s always best to contact a vein specialist for professional recommendations and treatment options.

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