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Cellulitis and Varicose Eczema: How Can You Tell The Difference?

It is very important to quickly distinguish between varicose eczema and cellulitis and to start the correct treatment. Varicose Eczema is a vascular condition that can lead to ulceration and cellulitis is an infection that can lead to sepsis.

People with varicose eczema need a duplex ultrasound scan and people with cellulitis need antibiotics.

So why is there confusion?

Varicose Eczema can take 2 forms.

  1. It frequently looks like a skin rash around the ankle and it is sometimes mistakenly considered to be primarily a skin condition. Therefore it is sometimes managed with creams such as hydrocortisone or similar steroid creams for long periods of time. This is the chronic form of varicose eczema that can be present for years before it may eventually cause a leg ulcer. The eczema in its early stages, may come and go, and the symptoms of itch and discomfort are relieved quickly by hydrocortisone. The problem with chronic varicose eczema is that many people receive the incorrect treatment: they are given creams when really these people should be referred to a vascular specialist for a venous duplex ultrasound scan and subsequently, the vein problem should be treated to prevent leg ulceration. At the very least, people with varicose eczema should be given advice about compression socks.
  2. The other form is acute varicose eczema (also known as acute lipodermatosclerosis). This condition can develop very quickly and it causes severe pain and swelling.

Acute varicose eczema (also known as Lipodermatosclerosis) is often misdiagnosed as cellulitis.

It is the acute form of varicose eczema that causes confusion. Many people with acute varicose eczema are diagnosed as having an injury or an infection.

varicose eczema vs cellulitis
Few doctors in primary care will have seen acute varicose eczema and it is frequently misdiagnosed as cellulitis. Antibiotics are often given to people with acute varicose eczema inappropriately. Antibiotics are the wrong treatment. Acute varicose eczema needs to be investigated by a venous duplex ultrasound scan.

This photograph demonstrates the results of treating acute varicose eczema. 

This lady had severe pain, swelling and a rash around her ankle. Her GP initially thought she might have had an injury but then he diagnosed cellulitis and started her on antibiotics. She came to see me when the swelling and pain continued to get worse. 

I performed a duplex ultrasound and I confirmed that she had acute varicose eczema. I treated her by Endovenous Laser Ablation.

As you can see, 6 weeks later, the swelling has subsided and her ankle is a now a normal size. The pain has gone and she can walk normally. ACUTE VARICOSE ECZEMA CAN BE CURED.

If the acute form of varicose eczema is allowed to develop over a long period of time, the area becomes scarred. 

If acute varicose eczema is allowed to enter a chronic phase, the skin contracts and becomes very tight.

Chronic Lipodermatosclerosis refers to changes in the skin of the lower legs. It is a form of panniculitis (inflammation of the layer of fat under the skin). Signs and symptoms include pain, hardening of skin, change in skin colour (redness), swelling, and a tapering of the legs above the ankles.

Over time, the area becomes very vulnerable to injury and even a very minor knock may cause a leg ulcer.

This advanced form may not be completely reversible. IF SCARRING DEVELOPS, THE CONDITION MAY NOT BE CURABLE. 



  • Varicose Eczema is a vascular condition
  • The Acute Form of Varicose Eczema is very painful and can mimic cellulitis
  • The Chronic Form is sometimes treated for long periods with creams and ointments
  • A venous Duplex Ultrasound Scan should be considered in cases where the diagnosis is in doubt
  • The abnormal veins which cause varicose eczema should be treated as soon as possible to prevent progression to leg ulceration
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Dr Haroun Gajraj

Dr Haroun Gajraj

The VeinCare Centre | Dorset | We help people find freedom from unsightly veins, veins causing pain, ache and throbbing as well as veins causing serious medical complications such as phlebitis, varicose eczema and leg ulcers.

We can help you. Please call 01935 873951 for more information

The VeinCare Centre

We help people find freedom from unsightly veins, veins causing pain, ache and throbbing as well as veins causing serious medical complications such as phlebitis, varicose eczema and leg ulcers

Call 01935 873951

Please call us to make an enquiry or send us a message using our contact form


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