Callus Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options

Calluses are areas of thickened skin that develop in response to repetitive friction, pressure, or trauma. Calluses are benign and do not require treatment, though home remedies are available.

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Contents

  1. Overview
  2. Symptoms
  3. Potential Causes
  4. Treatment, Prevention and Relief
  5. When to Seek Further Consultation
  6. References

What Is A Callus?

Summary

A callus is a naturally-occurring, protective thickening of the top layer of the skin. It is caused by repeated friction or injury to an area of skin. Calluses appear as thickened, rough or waxy, sometimes discolored areas of skin at the site of trauma. The feet are the most common site to develop calluses, followed by the hands. Calluses are common and harmless, and they do not require treatment. A good way to manage and prevent calluses is to protect the affected skin against the underlying cause of friction or trauma. If calluses become uncomfortable or unsightly, they can be treated by thinning the skin mechanically with a pumice stone, or with certain medicines like salicylic acid.

Recommended care

Callus Symptoms

Main symptoms

It will usually be easy to identify a callus, and often it will be no surprise that one has formed at a site of repeated friction. In certain cases, a callus is even desirable. Some characteristic features of calluses are listed below:

  • Location: Calluses develop on the skin at sites of repeated trauma. They occur most often on the feet, where friction between feet and shoes occur with walking. Other likely sites for callus formation are listed below in the “Causes” section of this article.
  • Thickened skin: This is the key finding in calluses. The skin will be thick and tough.
  • Change in skin texture: Calluses may be rougher and harder than surrounding skin. They may also have a waxy, smooth feel to them.
  • Flaking: The skin on and around a callus may thicken before flaking off entirely.
  • Decreased sensation: Since the callus has developed to protect the skin below from repeated trauma, there may also be decreased sensation at the site.
  • Discoloration: The thickened skin of a callus may develop a pale, yellowish, or darkened appearance compared with surrounding, normal skin.
  • Accentuated skin patterns: Calluses will accentuate fingerprints and ridges on hands and feet, unlike corns (described below)
  • Tennis toe: Tennis toe is the name for a specific type of callus that usually occurs on the tip of the second toe, where it rubs against an athletic shoe. It is accompanied by bruising and thickening of the toenail and is usually caused by athletic activity.

Corns

Corns are a condition closely related to calluses, described here for reference. Corns are generally smaller and more focused than calluses and tend to occur on the feet. Like calluses, they are a response to repeated injury, but unlike calluses, they may be painful or inflamed. Some other distinctive features of corns are listed below:

  • Core: One key to distinguishing corns from normal calluses is the presence of a whitish or clear central core [2].
  • Hard corns: located on dorsal aspects of toes
  • Soft corns: typically found in interdigital web spaces and may be confused with warts
  • Disrupted skin patterns: Unlike calluses, corns will disrupt fingerprints and ridges on hands and feet.

Callus Causes

Calluses are hyperkeratotic lesions, which means that they are spots where the top layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum, has grown thick and tough. Calluses are a part of the skin’s natural response to friction, trauma, and pressure. With repeated injury to a single site, the skin will thicken to protect itself, forming a callus.

Calluses are extremely common and can come and go with or without treatment, often lasting as long as the underlying cause of trauma. They can occur in people of all ages and ethnicities.

The foot is an especially common site for calluses due to the friction of footwear and constant pressure of walking. Some common predisposing factors for calluses of the feet are listed below:

  • Ill-fitting footwear
  • Bony protuberance of the foot
  • Abnormal walking or running motion

Calluses of the upper extremities may be more closely related to specific activities. Some common cause of upper extremity calluses are listed below:

  • Racquet sports: may cause calluses of the palm
  • Manual labor: Wielding a hammer, shovel, or other hand tools without proper protection like gloves can lead to callus formation.
  • Rock climbing
  • Musical instruments: Stringed instruments may cause calluses to form on the fingers, where friction occurs [1].

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Treatment Options, Relief, and Prevention for a Callus

Treatment

Callus prevention, discussed below, is often more effective than callus treatment. In addition, calluses are harmless and can even be helpful in preventing further skin damage, so treatment is certainly not required.

If treatment is desired for a particularly bothersome callus, some strategies are listed below:

  • Soothe and moisturize skin: Application of a thick ointment like petrolatum jelly (Vaseline) may help to ease pain and discomfort by softening the skin [3].
  • Reduce skin thickness mechanically: Reducing skin thickness may alleviate some bothersome symptoms of calluses. It is possible to reduce the thickness of a callus by sanding, filing, or using a rough pumice stone. These strategies may work especially well after soaking the callus in warm water for 10 minutes [2].
  • Reduce skin thickness medically: Keratinolytic agents are topical medicines that can thin the skin, helping to ease discomfort from a callus. Some examples include salicylic acid, urea, and ammonium lactate. These medicines may be applied daily or twice weekly.
  • Relieve pressure on the callus: Allow the callus to heal by relieving pressure and preventing additional trauma. Soft cushions like silicone sheets or sheepskin may shield calluses. Donut shaped corn pads are helpful for smaller calluses. This may even require new footwear, orthotics, or correction of gait abnormalities by a physical therapist.
  • Surgical intervention: In rare cases, if a callus is highly bothersome and does not respond to the treatments previously mentioned, surgical consultation with a podiatrist or orthopedist may be sought.

Prevention

Since most calluses are the result of repeated friction, pressure, or trauma, prevention of calluses is centered on avoiding these repeated traumas. Good ways to avoid callus formation include:

  • Properly fitting shoes, with comfortable, cushioned socks
  • Protective shoe inserts, pads, and cushions at protruding points of contact
  • Protective gear like padded gloves while using hand tools
  • Regular use of moisturizer to keep skin soft [4]

When to Seek Further Consultation for Callus

Most of the time, calluses are a harmless, normal part of everyday life. They are almost always benign and easy to identify, and for that reason, it is fine to treat them symptomatically at home, or not treat them at all.

If you notice that you are forming calluses to a much greater extent than others, for example, forming thick calluses over the entire surface of a hand or foot, you should consult with a dermatologist. Some genetic conditions, called keratodermas, can cause excessive formation of large and thick calluses.

Some other conditions that can cause excessive callus formation are arsenic exposure (which may present with lightened and darkened spots on the skin), and syphilis (a sexually transmitted infection).

Finally, if a callus develops an ulceration (a hole through the entire thickness of the skin), becomes excessively painful, red, swollen, or begins to discharge blood or pus, it may have become infected, and you should seek consultation with a physician.