Corns and Calluses: Causes, Symptoms, and Home Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Adam Hotchkiss, DPM
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Corns and calluses are thickened and often hardened areas of skin. Both are a natural protective response to repeated friction or pressure. However, corns and calluses develop slightly differently. On the feet, poorly fitting shoes are one of the most common causes of corns and calluses. Socks that do not fit right can also contribute to them. On the hands, using hand tools or playing a musical instrument are common causes.

Often, corns and calluses go away on their own without treatment. If you are experiencing pain or discomfort, you can take steps at home to get rid of your corns or calluses. In some cases, corns and calluses require medical treatment.

This article looks at common causes and risk factors for corns and calluses. It also covers at-home treatments and when to see a doctor.

What is the difference between corns and calluses?

Corns and calluses both involve a thickening of the skin as a result of irritation to a specific area. However, there are some distinct differences.

CornsCalluses
smaller, deeper lesions with a central coreflat and widespread
can be hard or softhardened, thick skin
often develop on toesoften develop on balls of feet, palms, or fingertips
painful, especially when pressedrarely painful

Corns and calluses usually are not serious problems and often go away once you remove the source of irritation. If a corn or callus is very painful or looks inflamed, see your doctor.

If you have diabetes or circulation problems, corns and calluses on the feet can increase your risk for skin complications. Regular foot care appointments will help your doctor find potential problems before they become serious.

What do corns and calluses look like?

A corn is a skin lesion that has a hard center of skin surrounded by inflamed tissues. These lesions can be very painful.

Image of a corn on someone's pinky toe
Songrit Kamolmarttayakul/Shutterstock

Calluses are areas of thickened skin where there is increased friction. They are not usually painful.

Image of calluses on toes and ball of foot
Andrew Bossi, 2007

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:

  • Wearing 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 playing a musical instrument, especially a stringed instrument such as a guitar, can irritate the skin and cause it to thicken.
  • 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. Calluses can form from using 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 shoes. Going without socks eliminates this protection, as when wearing sandals. Interior seams and straps on your shoes can also cause problems.
Unseen person playing guitar with fingers on frets
VICTOR TORRES/Stocksy United

Medical risk factors for corns and calluses

Certain medical conditions increase the risk of developing corns and calluses, including:

How to prevent corns and calluses

To minimize the pressure and friction that cause corns and calluses, you can take steps, including:

  • wearing shoes that fit properly and have enough room in the toe box
  • wearing properly fitting socks with your shoes
  • wearing gloves during sports or repetitive activities that require gripping

If you are prone to corns and calluses, talk with your doctor about strategies to avoid developing them.

What home treatments can get rid of corns and calluses?

Corns and calluses that do not cause pain may not require any treatment at all. In fact, some over-the-counter treatments have harsh chemicals that can cause further complications.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends these at-home treatments for corns and calluses:

  • Soak the corn or callus in warm water for 5–10 minutes.
  • Use a pumice stone or callus file in a circular or sideways motion to gently file the softened skin. 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 stone 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 removers 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.

Never attempt to cut away a callus or corn at home, as it can lead to infection and other complications.

When should you see a doctor for a corn or callus?

Most corns and calluses are not serious, and the problem resolves following treatment of the cause. In serious cases, you may need to see a specialist, such as a dermatologist or podiatrist, to determine the proper treatment.

See a clinician promptly when:

  • The corn or callus is very painful.
  • The corn or callus becomes inflamed.
  • You have diabetes or low blood flow. Self-treatment could result in minor injury or infection.

Corn and callus removal in a healthcare setting

Doctors may treat corns or calluses with the following:

  • scalpel trimming to remove excess skin
  • medicated pads or prescription medications to remove the callus 
  • shoe inserts, or orthotics, to accommodate structural problems with the foot or toe

Doctors may recommend surgery to correct structural foot or toe conditions if painful corns and calluses are a recurrent problem.

Summary

Corns and calluses are areas of thickened skin that develop in response to repeated irritation or friction. Corns are deeper, painful areas with a central core. Calluses are wider, flatter areas of thickness that typically are not painful.

At-home care for corns and calluses primarily involves removing the source of friction. This includes wearing shoes and socks that fit properly, as well as protective equipment such as gloves during repetitive activities or sports that require gripping.

Most corns and calluses will go away on their own. If you experience pain, redness, or swelling, or if you have risk factors such as diabetes, see your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Adam Hotchkiss, DPM
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 29
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