Spider Veins vs Varicose Veins, What are the Differences & Causes?

Spider veins are often small, thin, red, or blue weblike veins that appear on the skin’s surface, commonly of the legs or face. While varicose veins are much larger, often bulging from the skin like blue or purple ropes and knots. In this post, we’ll look at the differences between spider veins vs varicose veins, what causes them, and what you can do about them.

What are Spider Veins?

Spider veins are thin, damaged veins that appear visible through the surface of the skin in the form of thin lines, spider webs, or branches, most often on the legs or face; although they may also be found around the pelvic area or other parts of the body as well. They are most often red but can also be blue or purple in color. Spider veins develop as a result of tiny, one-way valves inside the veins weakening. In healthy veins, these valves push blood flow in one direction toward our heart. When these valves are damaged or weaken, some blood flows backward and accumulates in the vein. That extra blood in the vein puts pressure on the vein walls, which over time builds pressure resulting in the appearance of spider veins.

While spider veins may cause discomfort for some, they typically harmless and treatment tends to be more of a cosmetic concern than a medical issue.

It is often unknown what causes the spider veins, but rather genetic or lifestyle factors may contribute, which are mentioned later in this article as possible lifestyle changes.

What are Varicose Veins?

Varicose veins are much larger in size than spider veins while also bulging out from the skin, while spider veins tend to be under the skin.

Varicose veins tend to appear on the thighs, calves, and feet; while spider veins can really appear anywhere on the body, but commonly the face and legs. Varicose veins can be painful, causing cramping, swelling, throbbing, or itching. Although rare, they can lead to issues such as blood clots or ulcers.

Key Differences in Spider Veins vs Varicose Veins

Some of the key differences between spider veins and varicose veins are that spider veins remain under the surface of your skin, while varicose veins tend to bulge out. Spider veins are found on the face and other parts of the body. Varicose veins tend to be found on the legs (spider veins can be found there, too, though). Varicose veins may cause uncomfortable symptoms. Spider veins tend to be more of a cosmetic issue.

Symptoms of Spider Veins and Varicose Veins

Many experience no symptoms for spider veins as they tend to be more of a cosmetic concern. Some will experience uncomfortable symptoms with varicose veins such as cramping, swelling, itching, achy or extremely tired feeling legs. Hormonal changes may affect your symptoms. In particular, women may notice symptom flare-ups during times such as during their menstrual cycle, pregnancy, or menopause.

Who’s at risk for developing spider veins and/or varicose veins?

Really, everyone is at risk of developing spider veins and varicose veins, but others are more likely than others. In general, spider veins tend to appear later in life and are more common in women than men. In fact, it’s estimated more than half of all women will develop spider-like veins at some point. Varicose veins affect almost twice as many women as men and are much more common in older women. Everyday lifestyle factors can be one of the contributing causes of spider veins, such as alcohol use, sun exposure, and harsh weather conditions such as wind and cold can put pressure on exposed skin and put people at risk.

Risk Factors:

  • Family History: If you have blood relatives that have developed spider veins, you may be more likely to get them as well.
  • Aging Process: As a natural part of again, vein valves begin to weaken, which allows some blood to collect in veins.
  • Spending long periods of time standing or sitting: Standing or sitting for prolonged periods of time causes your veins to work harder to pump blood to your heart- which can result in spider veins.
  • Excess weight or obesity: Extra weight adds extra pressure on veins, resulting in damage to those veins.
  • Hormones: Changes in hormone levels due to factors such as pregnancy, birth control pills, or hormonal therapies that can relax or weaken vein walls, making one more susceptible to developing spider veins.
  • Pregnancy: Being pregnant increases the amount of blood pumping through your body to support the unborn baby (or babies). Veins swell in response to the extra blood flowing. The growing uterus is also putting extra pressure on the veins during this time.
  • Pre-existing conditions such as blood clots or scarring of veins can affect healthy blood circulation.

Treatment Options

The best treatment options for both spider veins or varicose veins require seeing a dermatologist, vein specialist, or another qualified doctor for treatment. There are lifestyle changes noted below that can help the blood flow better, which may help alleviate symptoms and help prevent developing more spider veins or varicose veins.

Spider Vein Treatment: The treatment of spider veins tends to be more for cosmetic reasons. Spider veins that are smaller or on the face are commonly treated in a doctor’s office with laser therapy. Another treatment for spider veins affecting larger areas or legs may be sclerotherapy, a procedure in which a small needle with a fluid is inserted into the affected veins. The fluid irritates the lining of the vein, causing the vein to swell shut and the blood to reroute to healthier veins. Spider veins will then fade or disappear over the next 3-6 weeks.

Varicose Vein Treatment: There is a range of treatments for varicose veins, both surgical and non-surgical. For smaller varicose veins, skin surface laser treatments and sclerotherapy are common treatments for spider veins. For larger bulging veins, endovenous thermal therapy may be used, which is laser and radiofrequency ablation. A doctor inserts a small tube into the vein. The vein is heated from within and closes it off. The healthy veins surrounding that vein take over the normal blood flow. Make sure to consult with your doctor on the newest and best medical treatment available for you.

Lifestyle Changes 

  • Exercise: The muscles in your legs have an important job of helping your veins push blood against gravity towards the heart. Working the muscles in your legs will help prevent new varicose veins or spider veins from forming.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Extra weight puts extra pressure on your veins, making it more difficult for your veins to move that blood against gravity towards the heart.
  • Walking Breaks: If you tend to sit or stand for 30 minutes or more at a time, take short movement or walking breaks to get the leg muscles moving and blood flowing.
  • Put your legs up: When you are sitting, put your legs up on a stool, ottoman or lay them across the couch, so the blood flow isn’t also fighting against gravity.
  • Wear compression Stockings: Compression socks can help increase blood flow in the legs. Consult with your doctor if they would be of benefit to you. Prescription-strength compression socks offer the greatest amount of pressure but require a doctor’s prescription. There are also over-the-counter compression socks available at drugstores or online, which help provide pressure around the foot, ankle, and lower legs to help move that blood towards the heart.
  • Limit alcohol: Regular alcohol use can create conditions that can lead to spider veins by breaking down the collagen in the vein walls. When veins become damaged or weakened, some blood flows backward and accumulates in the vein. That extra blood in the vein puts pressure on the vein walls, which over time builds pressure resulting in the appearance of spider veins.
  • Protect your face: While we can’t control the weather, we can protect our face and bodies from the harsh elements. Sun exposure, temperature changes, chemical irritants, and wind can all cause damage to the skin or exacerbate the appearance of spider veins that are already there. One more reason to put on the SPF, a hat and a scarf in the winter.

Always consult with your doctor before making any changes that may impact your health, such as a change in exercise or physical activities, medication changes, or changes in your weight.  

While spider veins and varicose veins aren’t pleasant to have, vein problems are common and affect many others- you are not alone. The good news is there are many treatment options available for you. Whether you are looking for cosmetic treatment or are experiencing more serious symptoms, a qualified doctor will be able to help you.

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Author Biography

Karla Kueber is a Certified Evidence Based EFT Practioner and Health Coach, with a double Masters Degree in Education. She works with people to overcome emotional eating, curb cravings, and overcome resistance to eating new healthy foods. You can learn more about finding freedom with food here.