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Calluses on the Feet

Dr. James Milidantri

Reviewed by
Dr. James Milidantri

Calluses, also called tylomas or keratomas, are protective layers of compacted, dead skin cells or patches of skin that thicken, especially in bony areas, to protect the skin from damage or injury. When calluses first begin to develop they are not painful. Constant friction and pressure on one part of the foot (usually the heel or the ball of the foot under the metatarsal heads) can cause calluses to develop on feet. Calluses also commonly develop on the hands and fingers. For example, a musician who has played the guitar for many years usually has calluses on his or her fingers. The second metatarsal bones in the feet bear most of our body weight, and calluses commonly form under the second metatarsal for this reason. Still, it is not uncommon for this to happen to the other metatarsals, or for more than one callus to form at a time.

A foot callus can be ugly and embarrassing for some, but it’s important to remember that the formation of calluses is part of the body’s defense system. The callus may be oval or elongated, and gray or brown in color. It may be slightly elevated, or it may have a smooth surface. Unfortunately, some people are prone to calluses because they have less cushioning tissue between the bones and skin of their feet. Calluses on feet that are left untreated can lead to additional problems such as nucleated skin lesions. When foot calluses have deep-seated cores, the condition is known as porokeratomas. These extremely painful lesions develop under the skin and can make it difficult to walk, stand, or even wear shoes. This is a painful problem for anyone to have, but it is a more serious problem for people with diabetes.

Calluses on Feet

Symptoms of Calluses on Feet

If you suspect a callus is developing, look for symptoms such as:

  • Thickening of skin, especially over a bony spot that doesn’t have distinct borders, but may be oval in shape
  • Discoloration of thickened skin; could be red, brown, or yellow-gray
  • May burn or throb

Remember, calluses are generally not painful or bothersome, but if proper treatment steps are not taken, the callus can become infected, which may lead to additional symptoms. If a foot callus becomes worse, symptoms may include:

  • Pain
  • Tenderness around area of callus
  • Pus or fluid draining from callus
  • Swelling
  • Fever

What Causes Calluses on Feet?

Calluses are caused by constant friction and pressure applied to the foot. The friction and pressure can have a number of causes, including:

  • Improper footwear, especially shoes that are too small, tight fitting, or narrow-toed, such as high heels
  • Improper socks that have a tendency to bunch up at the toes and cause friction
  • Walking barefoot can also cause the skin to thicken
  • Flat feet; the arch is too low and the foot is unstable
  • Bunions; calluses love to form over bunions
  • Athletic activities
  • Abnormal gait
  • High-arched feet
  • Obesity
  • Bony bumps
  • Worn-down pads on soles of feet
  • Long metatarsal bones that are closer to the ground, causing more pressure and friction than normal-size metatarsal bones

When Should I See a Doctor?

In most cases, calluses are painless but unattractive. It is generally not necessary to see a doctor, but seeing a podiatrist about a callus isn’t a bad idea. Your podiatrist can help you understand how to prevent the calluses from forming and can treat the callus or remove it for you. Many people try to remove calluses on their own by cutting them off with a knife or razor blade, but doing this can cause further damage that can lead to infection, requiring a visit to your podiatrist. If you are diabetic, you should talk with your doctor at the first sign of changes on your skin. Untreated calluses, whether you are diabetic or not, can turn into foot ulcers. If you develop a fever and your callus has become infected, do not wait to contact your doctor.

Diagnosing Calluses on Feet

Calluses can usually be diagnosed with a simple physical examination. If the case is more severe, an x-ray may be needed to help the doctor find any abnormalities in the foot’s structure that may be causing the problem. Questions are usually asked about your medical history, symptoms, and daily activities. Your doctor may also want to take a look at your shoes to ensure that they fit properly.

Treatment for Calluses on Feet

Treating a callus generally means removing it. You should never try to remove or treat a foot callus on your own. Instead, go to a podiatrist or your doctor to have it removed and to get tips on preventing calluses from returning or worsening. Your doctor will base your treatment on the cause of the callus. There are several non-surgical ways to treat calluses on feet, including:

  • Orthotics made of shock-absorbing materials that redistribute pressure on the foot equally
  • Non-medicated pads placed around the callus to relieve pressure
  • Pads containing salicylic acid, which helps dissolve thickened skin
  • Changing the footwear that may be causing the callus. For example, if a woman has calluses from wearing high heels, she may want to refrain from wearing them
  • Maintaining proper foot hygiene
  • Walk barefoot whenever possible, especially at home
  • Soaking feet in warm water and filing the callus down with a pumice stone to smooth thickened skin
  • Moleskin

Moleskin is a common material that can be purchased in strips or patches to put on your feet before wearing a pair of shoes known to cause you calluses. You should be aware, however, that patches and pads can cause uneven pressure on your feet, which can ultimately lead to more callus formations. Soaking your feet in Epsom salts, essential oils, moisturizers, or tea may be sufficient when trying to soften hard, dead skin. Always consult with your doctor about trying home remedies or products you’re unfamiliar with. Your doctor will be able to show you the proper way to use products such as lemon juice. Lemon juice mixed with aspirin produces a paste that can help to soften your skin before filing. These types of home remedies should be discussed with your doctor to ensure that they are safe treatment methods for you. If the calluses are stubborn and refuse to respond to non-surgical methods, surgery may be performed to remove them. Your doctor will know the best surgical method to remove your callus based on the circumstances of your individual case. Calluses should not take more than a few weeks to disappear.

Preventing Calluses on Feet

Here are a few tips to help prevent calluses from developing on your feet:

  • Wear proper footwear, including socks and shoes.
  • If you have a foot deformity, see a podiatrist or your doctor.
  • Wear orthotics and or padding or arch supports to help redistribute pressure when walking, standing, or moving.
  • Maintain proper foot hygiene.
  • Never attempt to remove a callus yourself.

Talking to Your Doctor

Feel free to ask your doctor these questions about calluses on feet:

  • I like to take hot showers; does the temperature matter when I’m bathing?
  • What over-the-counter products do you recommend to treat me?
  • What should I do if calluses begin developing on other parts of my body?
  • What are the chances non-surgical treatment will not work?
  • Which home remedies would benefit me most? What are the proper measurements of each ingredient, and how long should I apply the mixture for?

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Medical References:

  1. American Medical Association "Family Medical Guide" 4th Edition (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2004) 1061-1062
  2. Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 21 edition (F.A. Davis Company, 2005) 341
  3. M. Beers "Merck Manual of Medical Information" 2nd home edition (Pocket Books, 2003) 410
  4. ePodiatry, Foot corn and callus (hyperkeratosis) http://www.epodiatry.com/corns-callus.htm

This page was last updated on August 25th, 2014



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