Skin discoloration on the legs can occur for several reasons including psoriasis, sunburn, and vitiligo. Some causes are temporary and will clear up independently, while others may require long-term treatment.
In many cases, skin discoloration on the legs is due to a skin condition. However, this symptom can also indicate poor circulation or an underlying metabolic condition.
This article outlines the possible causes of skin discoloration on the legs, along with their associated symptoms and treatment options. It also provides advice on when to contact a doctor.
Sunburn is a reaction to skin-damaging UV radiation from the sun. This damage causes the skin to change color. Lighter skin may turn red or tan, while darker skin may become darker.
Symptoms of severe sunburn include:
- skin inflammation and pain
- dry, itchy, or peeling skin
- skin swelling or blistering
A person who has spent an excessive amount of time in the sun may also experience the following symptoms:
The following treatments may help alleviate the symptoms of sunburn:
- applying a cool compress to the skin
- applying a moisturizer or aftersun cream
- taking pain relief medications, such as ibuprofen
- avoiding any further sun exposure until healed
Anyone who experiences severe sunburn needs immediate medical attention.
Birthmarks are marks on the skin that typically appear at birth or just after birth.
There are many different types of birthmark, and each may vary in appearance. For example, birthmarks may:
- be flat or raised
- be as small as a pinhead or cover a much larger area of skin
- be white, pink, red, tan, or brown
- look like a stain or a bruise on the skin
Most birthmarks are harmless, but they can grow larger over time. Ideally, a person should have a dermatologist assess any birthmarks to make sure that they are not a symptom of another condition.
Some birthmarks may fade or disappear as the person gets older. If a person has a birthmark that requires treatment, excision, laser therapy, or medications may help reduce its appearance.
Eczema is an umbrella term for conditions that cause inflammation and irritation of the skin. There are different types of eczema with different causes.
Some causes include:
- an overactive immune system
- exposure to allergenic or irritating substances
- environmental triggers
The symptoms of eczema may vary depending on the type. Some possible symptoms include:
- dryness, scaliness, and itching
- oozing, crusting, or swelling
- skin sensitivity
- skin inflammation
- brown, purple, or gray areas (on darker skin)
- red areas (on lighter skin)
The treatment for eczema will depend partly on the type. Some possible treatment options include:
- moisturizing creams or ointments
- topical corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, redness, and itching
- light therapy to reduce inflammation and itching
- immunosuppressant or immunomodulating medications
Psoriasis is an auto-inflammatory condition in which the body produces skin cells more rapidly than usual. This causes a buildup of cells on the surface of the skin.
Symptoms may include:
- scaly plaques, which may form anywhere on the body but especially on the following areas:
- the knees
- the elbows
- the scalp
- the lower back
Factors such as genetics and having an overactive immune system may play a role in the development of psoriasis.
Psoriasis can be a life-long condition. However, the following treatment options can help a person manage the symptoms:
- topical medications, such as corticosteroids or coal tar
- oral or injectable prescription medications
- light therapy
Vitiligo is a condition that causes patches of depigmented skin. Symptoms may include:
- patches of lighter, or white, skin
- depigmentation of the hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes
- itchy or painful skin
Medical experts are unsure of the cause of vitiligo. However, risk factors include having an autoimmune condition or having a relative with vitiligo.
Treatments for vitiligo aim to reduce inflammation and replace lost skin color. Some options include:
- using makeup or skin dyes to camouflage any depigmented areas of skin
- undergoing surgery to transfer skin cells from areas of normal pigmentation to areas of depigmentation
- taking corticosteroids and other immunomodulating medications
- trying light therapy
Skin cancer can appear anywhere on the body, including the legs.
Symptoms may include:
- a new pigmented or skin colored bump
- pink, scaly plaque
- changes to an existing mole or birthmark, such as:
- changes in size, color, or shape
- the development of irregular edges or asymmetry
- bleeding or crusting
- growing larger than a pencil eraser
Skin cancer may also appear as a new mole or spot on the skin.
With early detection, skin cancer is very treatable. Skin cancer treatment depends on the type but may include:
- surgery to remove the skin cancer
- freezing or light therapy to destroy cancer cells
- radiation therapy
- targeted therapy to shrink cancer cells
Venous insufficiency (VI) is a condition in which the veins within the legs do not function properly, making it difficult for blood to return to the heart. This causes blood to pool in the legs.
VI can cause the following symptoms:
- brown or reddish staining of the skin above the ankles
- swollen ankles
- dry, itchy patches of skin
- wounds on the lower legs, which may leak fluid
- prominent veins
Treatment for VI may include:
- compression therapy to improve blood flow
- regular exercise
- moving the feet when sitting for long periods of time
- laser ablation
Diabetes is a condition wherein blood sugar levels become too high. Signs of diabetes can show up on the skin.
Some symptoms of diabetes may cause discoloration or changes to the legs, such as:
- yellow, reddish, or brown patches
- a hard, shiny appearance to the skin
- itchy, dry skin
- large, painless blisters
- brown spots or lines on the shins
The treatment of diabetes depends on the type a person has.
A person with type 1 diabetes will need to take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.
A person with type 2 diabetes may benefit from the following treatments:
- increasing physical activity
- eating a healthy diet
- losing excess weight
- taking medication to control blood sugar levels
When a person scratches or cuts their leg, they may notice that their skin is darker in that area after the wound has healed.
If the hyperpigmentation is severe and causing a person distress, they should speak with a doctor or dermatologist. They can recommend suitable treatment options.
Some treatment options include:
- kojic acid
- ascorbic acid
- chemical peels
- laser treatment
When a person has Schamberg’s disease, their capillaries leak, and they may notice
The exact cause of Schamberg’s disease is unknown, but alcohol consumption, genetics, and some medications, such as aspirin, can all cause the capillaries to leak blood into the skin.
There are some treatment options that could be effective in helping a person manage the symptoms of Schamberg’s disease.
Sometimes, a person may need to try several treatments before finding one that works well for them.
Treatment options may include:
- using topical steroids
- switching medication
- wearing compression stockings
A person should contact a doctor if they experience any of the following:
- swelling of the legs or ankles
- brown or reddish staining above the ankles
- any symptoms of diabetes
- any changes to any existing moles or birthmarks or the development of new growths on the skin
- leg discoloration that is affecting their self-esteem or quality of life
A person needs immediate medical attention if they experience any of the following:
- weakness, dehydration, or shock from sunburn
- a severe allergic reaction
- severe burns, wounds, or infection
In some cases, a doctor may take a skin sample, or biopsy, to examine the affected skin more closely.
Many causes of leg discoloration are temporary and will go away in time or with appropriate treatment. Other causes may require long-term treatment and management.
In some cases, skin discoloration of the legs can signal a serious health issue. In such cases, specific treatments may be necessary to prevent any further complications.
There are many potential causes of leg discoloration. Some are relatively benign and transient, while others can be much more serious.
A person should contact a doctor if they notice any changes to an existing birthmark or mole or if they develop any new growths on the skin. People should also contact a doctor if they experience any additional symptoms, such as those associated with VI or diabetes.
A doctor will work to diagnose the cause of a person’s symptoms and provide appropriate treatments.