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Corns and calluses are hard, painful areas of skin that often develop on the feet in response to pressure or friction.

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Corns and calluses are lesions that happen when the skin tries to protect an underlying area from injury, pressure, or rubbing.

The lesions are more common among people who wear ill-fitting shoes, have sweaty feet, or stand for long periods each day.

They affect women more than men and more African American and Puerto Rican people than non-Hispanic white people.

Calluses and corns are not usually harmful, but sometimes they may lead to irritation, infections, or ulcerations of the skin, especially among people with diabetes or poor circulation in the feet.

People sometimes mistakenly use the terms “corns” and “calluses” interchangeably, but these are not the same.

What is a callus?

A callus is a section of skin that thickens because of friction, pressure, or irritation. They often happen on the feet but can also occur on the hands, elbows, or knees.

They usually do not cause much discomfort. However, a callus on the foot may become painful when a person puts pressure on it while walking in shoes.

Calluses are yellowish or pale in color. They feel lumpy to the touch, but because the affected skin is thick, it may be less sensitive to touch than the skin around it.

Calluses are often bigger and wider than corns, with less-defined edges. They commonly appear where the skin frequently rubs against something, such as a bone, footwear, or the ground.

They typically form over the bony area just under the toes, which is the area of skin that takes the person’s weight when they are walking.

A plantar callus is a particular type of callus that forms on the bottom of the heel. It happens when one of the foot bones is longer than the other and hits the ground more forcefully when a person walks. This causes the skin under this bone to thicken.

What is a corn?

A corn is a kind of callus made of dead skin.

Corns on toes are very common because these are smooth, hairless skin surfaces. The corns are usually small and circular, with a clearly defined center that can be hard or soft.

Hard corns tend to be small. They occur in areas of firm, hard skin, where the skin has thickened or where there are calluses, and in bony areas of the foot.

Soft corns tend to be whitish in color, with a rubbery texture, and may look like an open sore and cause a person pain. They more commonly occur between the toes, in areas of moist and sweaty skin.

A third type of corn is a seed corn, which can form on the soles in clusters and is usually not painful.

Corns and calluses can make a person feel as if they are walking on stones. The following signs or symptoms may indicate a corn or callus:

  • a raised, hardened bump
  • a thick and rough area of skin
  • pain or tenderness under the skin

If a corn or callus becomes very painful, leaks fluid, feels warm, or looks red, a person should seek medical advice. These may be signs that the area is infected.

People with poor circulation, fragile skin, or nerve problems and numbness in the feet should also talk to their doctor before treating corns and calluses at home.

People with diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, and peripheral arterial disease need to be particularly watchful.

The primary risk factor for both corns and calluses is any pressure or friction on the skin. On the feet and hands, this may be caused by:

  • wearing shoes that are too tight, too loose, or too high-heeled
  • having a badly placed seam in a shoe
  • wearing socks that do not fit well
  • not wearing socks
  • walking barefoot regularly, as the skin will thicken to protect itself
  • using hand tools, sports equipment, or musical instruments without gloves
  • cycling frequently
  • kneeling or resting elbows on a table repeatedly

Additional risk factors include older age, joint diseases, other foot problems like bunions or hammer toe, walking a lot on flat surfaces, or having flat feet. For calluses specifically, diabetes is also a risk factor.

Many people treat corns and calluses at home using over-the-counter products from a pharmacy.

A person can also address corns and calluses in other ways:

  • Reduce the size of the lesion by soaking the corn or callus in warm water for 5–10 minutes and then filing or scraping the area with a pumice stone. Circular or sideways motions help remove dead skin.
  • Use moisturizer on the feet every day. Products that contain salicylic acid, urea, or ammonium lactate help soften the dry skin to prepare it for filing. A person can buy different foot lotions online.
  • Wear shoes and socks that fit properly, use protective pads or insoles, or take other self-care measures. Placing foam or silicone wedges between the toes can reduce pressure on a corn. Custom-made padded shoe inserts called orthotics may help people who have structural irregularities in their feet. A person can buy a variety of orthotic products online.

When to see a doctor

If the corn or callus is very painful, or if the person has diabetes, fragile skin, or circulatory problems, it is best to consult a doctor or a podiatrist who specializes in foot care.

The doctor will examine the feet, ask the person about their lifestyle, and check the person’s footwear. If there is a sign of infection, the doctor may prescribe antibiotic ointment.

If the doctor suspects there may be an underlying bone structure problem, they may refer the patient for an X-ray and possibly surgery.

A person should never try to remove a corn or callus without medical supervision, especially if they also have diabetes or other underlying conditions. Doing this can lead to diabetic ulcers or complications with circulation or numbness. This also increases the risk of infection.

A doctor can trim the lesion with a small knife, and they should do this only in a medical office. A corn or callus may recur and require repeated or regular trimming.

A doctor will usually recommend removal surgery only if the cause of the lesion is in the person’s bone structure, such as from a hammer toe or bunion or in some cases of a plantar callus.

A doctor can also remove a corn or callus by applying a patch with 40% salicylic acid to soften the lesion. A person may need to reapply the patch at home and rub the area with a pumice stone to prevent the corn or callus from returning.

What is salicylic acid?

The standard treatment for corns and calluses is salicylic acid. Doctors also use it in the treatment of other conditions such as warts.

This is a keratolytic, which means it dissolves the protein, or keratin, that makes up the corn and the dead skin around it. A person can buy it in the form of creams, pads, and plasters or apply it with an applicator or dropper.

After a person applies the acid, the top layer of the skin will turn white, and the person will be able to cut or file the dead skin off. Once the person has removed the corn or callus, they can soak the area and rub it with a pumice stone each week if the hard skin shows signs of coming back.

Salicylic acid comes in different concentrations. Stronger doses may work more quickly, but they require a prescription.

The ingredients can irritate surrounding skin, so a person should take care when applying it and should not use it on a cracked corn or callus.

People with diabetes should not use salicylic acid. Older adults should speak with a doctor before using salicylic acid, because this can cause skin problems that may be difficult to heal.

In rare cases, a person may experience an allergic reaction to salicylic acid. Symptoms may include a strong headache, stomachache, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, feeling faint, having difficulty breathing, and sensations of burning or irritation on the skin.

A person who experiences these symptoms, or anything else that may seem concerning, should seek immediate medical attention.

The following measures may help reduce the risk of developing corns and calluses:

  • avoiding or reducing any actions that may be causing the symptoms
  • wearing well-fitting shoes and socks with seams that do not rub the skin
  • protecting the hands when using tools, either with padded gloves or by padding the tool handles
  • wearing padding when needed — for example, wearing knee pads when kneeling on a hard surface
  • consulting a podiatrist about any issues with walking posture that a person may need to correct or any structural irregularities in the feet that a doctor may need to address surgically
  • using a pumice stone or foot file regularly and removing hard skin gently while bathing — a person can buy a pumice stone online

With treatment, corns and calluses may fade away, but without lifestyle or footwear changes, they may return.