Spider Veins (Telangiectasias)

Written by Ann Pietrangelo | Published on August 2, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Are Spider Veins?

Spider veins are a group of dilated veins that appear close to the surface of the skin and look like spider webs or tree branches. They are usually red or blue. Although they can develop anywhere, they are most common on the legs and face. Spider veins are smaller than varicose veins, but they are sometimes located together. Varicose veins are swollen veins that have filled with pooled blood.

Spider veins and varicose veins are very common, especially in people over the age of 50. Often, these abnormal veins cause no symptoms, but they can sometimes trigger swelling, throbbing, and restless legs. In some cases, they may become painful or cause skin sores or blood clots. Treatments for spider veins are generally safe and effective.

Symptoms of Spider Veins

The most obvious sign of spider veins is their web-like appearance on the skin. These veins can be red, blue, or purple. Other symptoms include:

  • an uncomfortable feeling in the legs
  • swelling
  • rash
  • throbbing, cramping, or aching
  • restless legs
  • itching around the veins
  • skin ulcers

See your doctor if:

  • your veins are warm to the touch and very tender
  • your veins cause pain
  • you are developing sores, rashes, or ulcers on your skin
  • skin on your ankle or calf is changing color and thickening
  • your spider or varicose veins bleed

Causes of Spider Veins

Almost 80 million Americans have spider or varicose veins. Almost half of all women between the ages of 40 and 50, and three quarters of those between the ages of 60 and 70, have them. Among men, one quarter of those aged 30 to 40, and half of those over 70, have them (Cleveland Clinic).

Spider and varicose veins are the result of weak or damaged valves in the veins. When the valves do not open to allow blood to leave the veins, blood backs up and the veins swell. A number of factors increase your risk of developing this condition, including:

  • aging
  • heredity (family history of the condition)
  • a history of blood clots
  • taking oral birth control pills
  • hormonal changes during puberty or menopause, or hormone replacement therapy
  • pregnancy
  • standing or sitting for long periods of time
  • wearing a girdle or clothing that is too tight
  • obesity
  • constipation
  • sun exposure (in light-skinned people)

Potential Complications of Spider Veins

In most cases, spider veins are not dangerous. However, spider and varicose veins are sometimes associated with:

  • skin ulcers, which form when the vein doesn’t drain, depriving your skin of oxygen. These can be difficult to treat.
  • bleeding because the skin over the veins has become thin and is easily injured
  • phlebitis, an inflammation of the vein caused by a blood clot
  • thrombosis, a condition in which blood clots form in the swollen vein. Deep vein thrombosis can be life threatening if the clots travel to vital organs.

Diagnosing Spider Veins

Spider veins are easily spotted during a physical exam. Your doctor may want to look at your legs while you are seated and while you are standing. To examine blood flow or to check for blood clots, your doctor may order diagnostic tests, including:

  • ultrasound (uses sound waves to create images of internal structures and blood flow)
  • venogram (uses X-rays to create images of your veins)

Treating Spider Veins

Unless you are experiencing pain or other symptoms, spider and varicose veins don’t require treatment. If you have symptoms or would like the veins removed for aesthetic reasons, treatment options include:

  • Support stockings: Compression stockings put pressure on your veins and relieve discomfort. These can be purchased over-the-counter or by prescription.
  • Sclerotherapy: This common treatment is used for spider veins and varicose veins. In this procedure, a doctor injects a chemical into your veins, causing them to seal shut. With blood flow stopped, the vein becomes scar tissue and eventually fades. This treatment must be repeated every four to six weeks.
  • Laser treatments: This procedure uses a laser to send bursts of light through your skin and into your vein, making the vein fade.
  • Surgery: Various surgical techniques are generally reserved for the largest and most unsightly veins.

Outlook for Spider Veins

Spider and varicose veins are generally not serious health issues. Available treatments are usually easy and highly successful. However, new veins can form as you age.

Preventing Spider Veins

If you’ve had spider or varicose veins, you can minimize your risk of developing more by:

  • wearing compression support stockings
  • elevating your legs for 30 minutes several times a day

Other things you can do to prevent spider and varicose veins:

  • Don’t cross your legs when you’re sitting down.
  • Try not to sit or stand in one position for a long time.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid wearing high heels.
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