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Corns and calluses: symptoms, treatment and prevention

Mohommed Essop-Adam
Reviewed by Mohommed Essop-AdamReviewed on 30.10.2023 | 6 minutes read
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Corns and calluses are areas of thickened and hardened skin caused by the repeated minor friction or rubbing of the skin, and they can become painful. In most cases, they are not serious and you can usually treat them yourself at home.

Despite appearing similar and being the cause of repeated friction and pressure, corns and calluses are not the same thing.

What are corns?

Corns are small, uniform areas of skin that have become dense and thickened as a result of repetitive friction or pressure that can become painful when pressure is applied to a focal point. There are different types of corns:

Hard Corns

Hard corns are small dense areas of skin that have become thickened and hard. This type of corn usually forms on the top of toes or at the side of feet.

Soft Corns

As the name implies, soft corns have a softer texture than hard corns. They appear whitish in colour and generally form between the toes. Occasionally this is the early stage of a corn and can harden over time

Seed Corns

The smallest type of corn, seed corns develop on the bottom of feet, forming at the points where body weight puts the most pressure on the foot. This can be extremely painful.

What are calluses?

Compared to corns, calluses are much larger and hardened patches of skin. They are irregular in shape, most often forming at points on the bottom of the foot where there is the most pressure between your skin and the ground. This can include the toes, most commonly the big toe, the ball, heel and sides of the foot.

While calluses are not generally harmful, they can become painful if they become too thick or start to press on nerves and blood vessels.

Is a callus the same as a blister?

Calluses and blisters are different skin conditions. A callus is hardened skin caused by repetitive friction and is usually painless. Whereas a blister is painful fluid-filled skin also caused by friction but other causes as well, including burns, viruses and other medical conditions.

Causes and why they occur

Corns and calluses tend to occur on any area of the body that is subject to repetitive friction. Most commonly observed on the feet and toes, they can also develop on the hands if your job involves the regular use of handheld tools e.g. Builder, Plumber, Labourer, you play certain instruments, or lift heavy weights frequently.

Calluses generally consist of a broad area of thickened skin such as on the ball of the foot, whereas corns may present as a hard dense knot of skin on the top or sides of toes. Corns can also appear between the toes but these are usually not as thick and hard - these are known as soft corns.

Common causes of corns and calluses

  • Wearing ill-fitting shoes or socks is usually the cause of corns and calluses on the feet, as excessive rubbing on prominent areas of the skin causes it to become hardened.
  • Not wearing socks with shoes can increase the likelihood of corns and calluses. Socks give the skin some protection from the friction caused by the shoe. Not wearing socks leaves your skin exposed to any rubbing.
  • Playing a musical instrument , most commonly a stringed instrument such as a guitar, violin, or cello, will often result in calluses developing on the fingertips. This type of callus is often very sore until the skin toughens completely.
  • Repetitive lifting of heavy weights at work or at the gym can result in calluses forming on the palm of the hand.

Other causes include:

  • Frequent sport and physical activity.
  • Standing, walking and running for long periods of time.
  • Walking barefoot for extended periods.
  • Frequently wearing high heeled shoes.

Symptoms of corns and calluses

There are more than a few symptoms of corns and calluses to look out for. The most common symptoms include:

  • A thick, raised area of hardened skin.
  • A tough bump that has formed on the skin.
  • Pain under the skin that is localised to a single point.
  • Skin that appears dry, flaky, discoloured, red and/or inflamed.

Are corns and calluses contagious?

Corns and calluses are not contagious. They are not caused by any kind of virus or pathogen, only by friction and rubbing. They can't be passed onto other people, and will not spread to another area of the body that isn't exposed to repeated friction or rubbing.

Treatments

Corns and calluses can be an unpleasant and painful condition to suffer from. So, what can be done to get rid of them?

Home Remedies

In most cases, corns and calluses are not serious and can be treated at home. Here are some of the best ways to treat corns and calluses yourself:

  • Soak the affected area of skin in warm water for approximately 10 minutes. This will moisten and soften the skin. Whilst the skin is soft, a foot filer or pumice stone can be used to gently file away the excess hardened overgrown skin, which can reduce pressure and pain symptoms. These can be purchased at most pharmacies and major retailers.
  • The use of cushioning pads and insoles can provide pain relief and prevent any further worsening of the corn or callus.
  • There are a number of products containing salicylic acid such as Bazuka gel which can help to gently chemically exfoliate the skin.

If corns and calluses can't be treated at home, your doctor may refer you to a podiatrist to have them cut away the corn or callus, in a process called "paring down". If there are any signs of infection you may be prescribed a course of antibiotics.

Pharmacist recommended products

When should you see a doctor?

Corns and calluses rarely require an appointment with your doctor and can mostly be treated with help from your local pharmacist or at home. However, they can become more serious when combined with other underlying medical conditions.

A person with diabetes, heart disease or problems with poor blood circulation should not attempt to treat corns and calluses themselves. Your doctor should be contacted if diabetic suspects they have corns and calluses and the doctor will advise further.

If corns and calluses are persistent and become so painful that they prevent a person from carrying out their normal daily activities, your doctor can help by offering the best treatment available to help reduce the pain and remove the hardened skin.

Also if the area is warm to touch or increasing in size it may infected, which is that case will need antibiotics. You will need to speak to your doctor about that.

Corns and calluses with diabetes

Diabetes has a significant impact on the feet, with high blood glucose levels resulting in micro and macro issues. One of the microvascular issues is that the blood supply to the extremities gets reduced, leading to an inability to send and receive accurate sensory signals, which can also in the long term lead to gangrene. People with diabetes should have a regular foot check in case they have any ulcers, sores or cuts that aren't healing properly (due to poor circulation).

Corns and calluses can mean that foot ulcers go without detection, growing underneath or amongst the thickened skin. This is very dangerous for people with diabetes as the immune system will struggle to fight off the ulcer itself. In worst cases, this can result in the loss of the affected foot.

Infected corns and calluses

If corns and calluses are bleeding or have any discharge they could be infected. In this case you should contact your doctor and they will prescribe you antibiotics to clear the infection.

Prevention

Preventing corns and calluses is relatively easy if the hands and feet are treated with care and attention. Looking after these parts of the body often goes forgotten - here are some ways you can take better care of your hands and feet:

  • To reduce the chances of corns and calluses forming on your feet, only wear shoes that fit properly, comfortably and that give your toes enough room. It may be beneficial to have your feet measured so you know exactly what size fits you best.
  • Wear thick socks that fit well - they provide an extra layer of protection between your skin and the shoe.
  • Don't walk barefoot.
  • Regularly wash and apply moisturiser to your hands and feet.
  • Use a foot file or pumice stone to remove any dry or hard skin on your feet.

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Mohommed Essop-Adam
Reviewed by Mohommed Essop-Adam
Reviewed on 30.10.2023
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