What are spider veins vs. varicose veins?

Sometimes veins become visible beneath the surface of the skin due to damage. The main difference between spider veins vs. varicose veins is their size. Spider veins tend to be smaller than varicose veins.
Sometimes veins become visible beneath the surface of the skin due to damage. The main difference between spider veins vs. varicose veins is their size. Spider veins tend to be smaller than varicose veins.

Sometimes veins become visible beneath the surface of the skin due to damage. Spider veins and varicose veins can appear in places like the ankles, thighs, and calves. Women tend to be more prone to the appearance of varicose and spider veins than men. 

The main difference between spider veins vs. varicose veins is their size. Spider veins tend to be smaller than varicose veins. Both can progress to a point where they are starkly visible beneath the skin. 

What are spider veins?

Spider veins are typically red in appearance. They tend to fan out like spider webs or tree branches. While spider veins are visible, they do not push out from the skin. Spider veins typically appear on your lower limbs, though they can also occur on the face. 

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins have a swollen, twisted appearance that seems to bulge out from the skin. Like spider veins, varicose veins typically appear on your lower limbs. That’s because the veins in your lower region must move blood a longer distance to get it back to the heart, all while pushing against gravity. 

What are the symptoms and signs of spider veins vs. varicose veins?

Spider veins and varicose veins have different appearances. Spider veins were named for their web-like appearance. They usually do not cause any medical complications, while varicose veins can lead to more serious medical complications. 

Symptoms of spider veins

The primary symptom of spider veins is the appearance of red or purplish blood vessels appearing on your limbs, usually your legs or thighs. Most people do not have any symptoms beyond that, though there have been rare cases where people experience a burning sensation or feel mild discomfort.

Symptoms of varicose veins

While the main symptom of varicose veins is the appearance of darkened, bulging veins, they can cause discomfort, especially if you are sitting or standing for long periods of time. These symptoms include:

These symptoms may improve with rest and leg elevation. 

What are causes of spider veins vs. varicose veins?

Spider veins and varicose veins result from damage to one-way valves inside responsible for transporting blood back to the heart. This damage causes blood to pool inside the veins, straining the walls of the vein and making them become more visible. 

Some people may be more at risk of developing spider veins or varicose veins because of the following factors:

  • Have a personal or family history of spider veins or varicose veins
  • Must sit and stand for long periods
  • Are overweight or medically obese
  • Are currently pregnant
  • Have weakening blood valves in your veins because of aging
  • Are taking birth control with hormones or using hormone therapy
  • Have blood clots that cause damage to valves in the veins

Women often get spider or varicose veins when pregnant because of the additional blood needed to support their unborn child. The condition may clear up without treatment a few months after giving birth. You may find yourself with more spider veins and varicose veins during subsequent pregnancies

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How to diagnose spider veins vs. varicose veins

Physicians typically diagnose both spider veins and varicose veins by performing a physical exam. They may also ask you additional questions about your symptoms and your medical history. They may order further testing to confirm a diagnosis and rule out other causes for the appearance of your veins. 

  • Ultrasound — An ultrasound uses sound waves to form pictures that allow your doctor to see inside your body. The images also let the physician monitor how blood flows in your veins and to check for blood clots or weakened, leaky valves in your veins. 
  • Venogram — A venogram involves a doctor inserting dye into your body to get a better view of your veins with an x-ray. Physicians typically rely on this test if they suspect the presence of a blood clot.

Treatments of spider veins vs. varicose veins

Spider veins may clear up after some months have passed without requiring medical treatment. Your doctor may recommend that you wear support stockings to shrink your current varicose veins' size and prevent the formation of new ones. There are also cosmetic procedures available that can reduce the appearance of spider veins, including: 

  

  • Sclerotherapy — A doctor injects a salt solution into the area with the varicose veins to close off the veins. Side effects can include a few days of tenderness and some bruising that usually goes away after a few weeks. You may need to go in for several sessions of sclerotherapy to get satisfactory results. 
  • Laser treatment — A doctor directs laser light toward your spider veins. That causes blood clots to form, which leads to the blood vessels getting blocked off and eventually reabsorbed into the body.

Your physician may recommend treating varicose veins with specific lifestyle changes, including:   

  • Losing weight
  • Avoiding situations where you must stand on your feet for long periods
  • Being more physically active 

In addition to sclerotherapy and laser treatment, your doctor may suggest the following when it comes to providing relief from varicose veins:

  • Endovenous ablation — Your doctor directs heat inside of your varicose vein using a laser or radiofrequency energy to close it off. 
  • Removal of varicose veins — Your doctor may recommend taking out the varicose veins in more severe cases. The procedure typically involves the doctor making small cuts to remove veins closer to the skin’s surface. Larger veins may require the use of tools to close off the vein before removing them. 

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Medically Reviewed on 2/16/2021
References
American Academy of Dermatology Association: “Leg Veins: Why They Appear and How Dermatologists Treat Them.”
br/> Harvard Health Publishing: “Spider Veins.”
br/> National Institutes of Health: “Bulging Veins.”
br/> National Institutes of Health: “Varicose Veins.”
br/> Office on Women’s Health: “Varicose veins and spider veins.”
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