Corns and Calluses
What is a corn or callus?
Corns and calluses are thickened and often hardened areas of skin. They are a natural protective response to repeated friction or pressure. But corns and calluses develop slightly differently.
Corns are small areas of thickened skin that can be hard or soft. They develop over areas where bones put pressure on the skin at areas of friction. Hard corns most often affect the tops or sides of the toes. Soft corns can occur between two toes where they rub together and may look like a sore. Corns are often painful, especially when you press on them.
Calluses are wide, flat areas of hardened, thick skin that are rarely painful. They tend to develop on the soles of the feet on the balls or heels, the bottom of the toes, the palms of the hands, the fingertips, and the knees.
On the feet, poorly fitting shoes are one of the most common causes of corns and calluses. Socks that don’t fit right can also contribute to them. On the hands, using hand tools or playing a musical instrument are common causes. People with arthritis and foot deformities are more likely to develop corns and calluses. And people with diabetes or circulation problems are at risk of complications from them, such as ulcers and infections.
If corns or calluses aren’t causing pain, it’s probably best to leave them alone. If they are painful, they may respond to home callus and corn treatment, such as soaking them and cushioning them with non-medicated pads. However, the problem is likely to recur unless you eliminate the irritation, such as buying properly fitting shoes. See your doctor if a corn or calluses becomes very painful or inflamed. People with diabetes or circulation problems should contact their doctor before attempting to treat corns or calluses at home.
What are the symptoms of corns and calluses?
Corns and calluses are thickened areas of skin, but their symptoms can be slightly different.
Common symptoms of calluses
Calluses have the following characteristics:
- Develop on the bottom of the toes, balls of the feet, heels of the feet, knees, palms of the hand, and fingertips
- Hard, thick skin that is flat and covers a fairly wide area
- Pain in rare cases
Common symptoms of corns
Corns have the following characteristics:
- Develop on the tops or sides of the toes or between them
- Small, raised areas of hard, thick skin or soft, mushy skin that can be sore-like or wart-like
- Pain is common
Corns and calluses usually aren’t serious problems. If a corn or callus is very painful or looks inflamed, see your doctor. It may require more than home remedies to help it heal. If you have diabetes or circulation problems, regular foot care appointments will help your doctor find potential problems before they become serious.
What causes corns and calluses?
Corns and calluses are your body’s natural response to chronic pressure and friction on the skin. The thickened skin is an attempt to protect the skin from pressure and friction. As long as the repetitive irritation occurs, corns and calluses will continue to develop and grow. Common sources of friction and pressure include:
- Ill-fitting shoes and socks: Shoes that are too tight can cause pressure by squeezing the foot and toes. Shoes that are too loose can cause friction from the foot rubbing or sliding in the shoe. Socks can also cause friction if they are too big or have seams that constantly rub a specific area.
- Playing musical instruments: Repetitive pressure from a musical instrument can irritate the skin and cause it to thicken. This is especially true for stringed instruments, such as guitars.
- Participating in sports that require gripping: The constant pressure and sliding of grips can cause hand calluses. Examples include rowing and racquet sports.
- Using hand tools: The handles of hand tools can be a source of friction and pressure. This applies to writing tools as well.
- Wearing high heels: The angle of the foot in a high-heeled shoe puts constant pressure on the ball of the foot and toes.
- Wearing shoes without socks: Properly fitting socks reduce friction between your foot and shoe. Skipping the socks eliminates this protection. Seams inside the shoe and straps on the shoe can also cause problems. This is true for sandals as well.
What are the risk factors for corns and calluses?
Several factors increase the risk of developing corns and calluses including:
- Bone spurs
- Foot and toe deformities, including bunions, hammertoe, or claw toes
- Not using gloves or other hand protection
Reducing your risk of corns and calluses
You may be able to lower your risk of developing corns and calluses by:
- Wearing padded work gloves or sports gloves
- Wearing shoes that fit properly and have enough room in the toe box. Shoes should fit right when you buy them. Shoes that need to be broken in are a sign that the shoe isn’t a proper fit. If a shoe only rubs or pinches in a certain area, a shoe shop may be able to stretch or adjust those areas.
- Wearing properly fitting socks with your shoes
If you are prone to corns and calluses, talk with your doctor about strategies to avoid developing them.
How are corns and calluses treated?
Corns and calluses that don’t cause pain may not require any treatment at all. You can cause more harm than good by messing with them. When they cause pain or discomfort, you can try home corn and callus treatment with these steps:
- Soak the corn or callus in warm water for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Use a pumice stone or callus file to gently file the softened skin using circular or sideways motions. Only rub away the outer layer. Removing too much skin can lead to complications, such as bleeding and infection.
- Apply moisturizer or lotion to the area after using a pumice or file. Repeat the moisturizer daily.
- Cushion the area with non-medicated donut pads or moleskin. For corns between the toes, use lambswool not cotton. Medicated corn and callus remover can cause irritation and lead to infection and other problems. Use these only with your doctor’s instructions.
- Wear shoes and socks that fit properly.
If you have diabetes or circulation problems, do not attempt to treat corns and calluses at home. See your doctor if you notice a corn or callus developing. Otherwise healthy people should see a doctor if a corn or callus becomes painful or inflamed or persists despite home treatment. Doctors may treat corns or calluses with the following:
- Scalpel trimming to remove excess skin. Do not attempt to do this at home, as it can lead to infection and other problems.
- Medicated callus remover
- Shoe inserts, or orthotics, to accommodate foot or toe deformities
In rare cases, doctors may recommend surgery to correct foot or toe deformities if painful corns and calluses are a recurrent problem.
What are the potential complications of corns and calluses?
For healthy people, corns and calluses rarely cause complications. They usually improve with home treatments and don’t cause long-term problems.
People with diabetes and circulation problems are at increased risk of complications from foot problems, including corns and calluses. Possible complications include ulcers and infections. If you have these conditions, you should examine your feet daily for signs of changes or problems. See your doctor if you notice anything.
Anyone should see a doctor if they have a corn or callus with increasing pain, redness, warmth or drainage.