What Are Calluses and Corns?

Calluses and corns are tough, thick areas of dead skin, most commonly on the fingers, hands, toes, and feet. Calluses and corns are typically grayish or yellow and act as a buffer against sources of friction, pressure, and injury. They tend to be less sensitive than other, uncalloused skin and can sometimes be bumpy in texture, especially on the fingertips. They are not caused by any viruses, and they are not contagious.

Calluses tend to form on the bottoms of feet and on the hands in stretches of tough, hardened dead skin. Corns, on the other hand, appear almost exclusively between the toes, in areas where friction occurs.

While calluses and corns may be unsightly, they normally don’t come with any health risks and are even helpful at times. A guitarist’s calloused fingertips can make playing much easier, just as a tennis player’s calloused palms protect her against potential blisters from swinging a racket. However, if corns or calluses become too large and start causing discomfort, methods for treatment and removal should be considered.

Symptoms

Calluses and corns can both be characterized by a rough area of skin, a hardened bump, tenderness or pain under the skin, and dry or slightly waxy skin. However, the two have several differences.

Calluses: These are normally painless stretches of tough, thick skin on the hands and feet, especially on areas exposed to frequent friction or pressure. They vary in shape in size depending on the size and pressure of the source of irritation. They most commonly appear on the soles of the feet, especially the heels.

Corns: Corns are small knobular clusters of tough, dead skin that typically appear between the toes due to the area’s constant friction.

  • Hard corns: A tough, small corn found on the bony part of the toe, usually the pinky toe
  • Soft corns: A softer small corn found between two toes, usually the fourth and fifth toes.

When to see a doctor: Corns and calluses are generally harmless, but call your doctor if your callus or corn become painful or inflamed. If you have diabetes or poor circulation, consult with your doctor before pursuing any self-treatment.

Causes

Frequent exposure to sources of friction, pressure, or injury will cause calluses and corns to form as a layer of protection. The pressure against the skin causes the skin to die and toughen, forming a calloused buffer. Soft corns form in this same way, but their texture is less tough because perspiration often gets caught in the center of the corn during formation.

Restricting or painful footwear can also cause calluses and corns, especially painful ones. Shoes that are too tight, too high, or too unsupportive cause irritation and friction that lead to the formation of these skin growths.

Repeated foot pressure from athletic activity and walking barefoot too often also increases the chance of getting calluses and corns. They can also grow on top of bunions and the bumps caused by diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

Treatment

Treatment for calluses and corns is relatively easy and hassle-free. The most effective method is to simply remove the source of friction or pressure, like an ill-fitting shoe, that caused the callus or corn to form in the first place. Protective bandages and padding can also help. Other treatment options for painful calluses and corns include:

  • Trimming away excess skin: Your doctor may trim or pare down a large corn or callus with a scalpel. Do not attempt this at home, as it could easily lead to an infection if done improperly.
  • Callus-eliminating medication: Adhesive patches containing 40% salicylic acid are available over the counter. Your doctor will let you know how often to apply and replace these patches based on the severity of your condition.
  • Shoe inserts: Orthotics and other custom shoe-padding options are helpful for those with painful corns or calluses on the feet.
  • Surgery: If a misaligned bone is the culprit of callus formation, surgery can set it back in its proper place, and calluses and corns will fade accordingly.

Tips for Living with Corns and Calluses

Corns and calluses are popular and, except for rare instances, totally manageable, and care is relatively easy. Some tips for making the process even easier include:

  • Use over-the-counter salicylic patches
  • Soak your hands and/or feet
  • Buff away excess thick skin with a pumice stone or nail file
  • Moisturize your skin regularly
  • Wear comfortable shoes and socks
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