Common Causes of Corns and How to Prevent Them

Common Causes of Corns and Treatment Options

Corns develop when your toes rub closely together and irritate the skin on your toes.

Why Corns Form on Toes and Feet and Effective Treatments for Corns

Do you have an uncomfortable or painful spot on the top or side of your foot? Are you used to wearing tight or uncomfortable fitting shoes? If you answered yes to these questions, it is very possible that you have a corn.

Jump to a section using the links below, or explore the page to learn all about corns and how to remove this painful foot problem from your life.

Identifying Corns     Corns vs Calluses     Corns vs Warts     Corn Treatments      Preventing Corns 
Are Corns Hereditary?       Are Corns Contagious?       When to See a Podiatrist for Corns

How Corns Develop on Feet and Toes

Corns develop when there is constant pressure on one area of skin on your foot or toe. Over time the repeated friction and pressure causes the skin cells to die. Your body then forms a hard surface (a corn) in order to protect itself.

You may start to notice that you are developing a corn when the skin in the affected area starts to become rough and discolored. There are several different types of corns—hard corns, soft corns and seed corns.

What is a Corn?

Corns are white or yellow thick layers of dead skin cells that may feel bumpy and rough. Corns are shaped like cones and are usually found along toe bones where the tip of the corn can press against a nerve. A consultation with a podiatrist is the best way to identify and treat different types of corns. Depending on the kind of corn you’ve developed you may notice different traits:

Hard Corns- The medical term for a hard corn is Heloma Durum. If you have a hard corn you will notice a compact patch of tougher skin with a different core that may seem harder than the rest of the corn.

Soft Corns- The medical term for a soft corn is Heloma Molle. Soft corns tend to be reddish, tender and sensitive with a smoother center. Heloma Molle are usually found in between your toes, especially between the fourth toe and pinkie toe. Heloma Molle are typically a very painful type of corn.

Seed Corn- Seed corns are also very painful and appear as a dense hill of dead skin. A seed corn actually refers to very tiny corns grouped together. They are extremely tender and more commonly located on the heel or balls of your feet.

How Corns and Calluses are Different

Also known as a callosity, a callus is a thick buildup of dead skin cells and often found on the feet. Many people confuse corns and callouses because they can look very similar. You may mistake a corn for a callus or just dead/dry skin on your foot.

Like corns, calluses form to protect your skin from prolonged friction and pressure. Both corns and calluses can be called hyperkeratosis—the medical name for thick, hardened skin.

Calluses are usually painless or may hurt only slightly. In most cases corns are very painful, even excruciating.

Appearance of corns and calluses:

Corns compared to calluses tend to be small and round, whereas calluses are usually larger, wider and flatter. A corn usually forms as a hard core with inflamed red skin around it. 

Location of corns and calluses:

Calluses manifest as rough, hardened bumps most commonly found on the heels, balls of feet or sides of feet. Corns are more often found on the toes.

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What Causes Corns?

Milwaukee woman with Corns on Foot

Our podiatrists will determine the cause of your corns & design an effective treatment plan.

Several different factors can cause corns to develop:

  • Wearing tight-fitting shoes or sandals
  • Shoes or sandals in the wrong size or shape for your foot
  • Wearing a different style of shoe that the foot is not used to
  • Not wearing socks
  • Foot deformities such as bunions or hammertoes
  • Spending long periods of time on your feet, especially walking and running
  • Getting older causes the skin of the feet to become thinner. Less fat tissue makes it more likely you’ll develop corns and calluses.
  • Women are more likely than men to develop corns on their feet.

These are the most common causes of corns, but anything causing repeated rubbing or stress on the skin of your foot can cause a corn to develop.

Are Corns Hereditary?

Corns are not a hereditary trait. Corns are areas of hard, thickened skin caused by stress. 

Are Corns Contagious?

Corns are not contagious or infectious. Corns are not caused by a virus or bacteria, they are caused by friction and pressure over time.  People are often confused about the difference between a corn and a wart. Warts are contagious and should be treated as soon as possible.

How to Tell a Corn from a Wart

Plantar warts and corns can look very similar and can appear on the same parts of the feet.

You can tell corns and warts apart by considering the quantity, appearance and location of the growth.

Corns most often appear:

  • On top of toes
  • Between toes
  • On pinkie toes

Corns can also form on the balls of the feet and on the heel.

Plantar warts most often appear:

  • On heels
  • On the ball of your feet
  • Underneath your big toe

Plantar warts are identified by a dry and crusty surface of the skin with small black dots deep below. Warts usually grow in clusters on the feet.
The surface of a corn is thick and hard without black dots beneath the surface. A corn forms as a single problem however you may develop corns in multiple places on one foot.

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Symptoms of Corns

There are a few different types of corns that you can get, all with various symptoms. This will also include some of the symptoms of calluses that could possibly be confused with as corns. When a corn is developing you can start to notice:

  • Part of the skin on your toe is harder than usual
  • Discoloration
  • Yellowness on the top of the foot
  • Redness on the inside of the toe

Because corns are so often confused with calluses and other foot irritation, it’s best to get an expert opinion.

Will Corns Go Away by Themselves?

In most cases corns are not a serious health issue, although they can be very painful. If you are healthy and remove the cause of the corn or callus, it will usually go away on its own.

Your corns or calluses should disappear within a month of replacing your footwear and stopping the activity causing the corns. If the corns persist, you’re better off seeing a podiatrist for a professional diagnosis.

How to Prevent Corns

Preventing corns on your feet usually comes down to wearing the right kind of footwear:

  1. Measure your foot and wear the right size shoes. To make sure that you do not suffer from corns, get your feet measured (length and width) and buy your shoes based on those measurements. Shopping for shoes at the end of the day when your feet are most swollen will help you pick an adequately sized shoe. Make sure there’s about a half inch between your longest toe and the front of the shoe. This ensures your foot won’t be constantly rubbing against the inside toe of your shoe.
  2. Wear the right socks. Wearing comfortable socks can sometimes be just as important as the shoes you’re wearing. If you’re prone to corns, try wearing socks with more padding.
  3. Limit how much you wear high heels. Wear the lowest heels possible: It is best to limit your time spent in high heels, as this is one of the main causes of corns for women. Wearing a lower high heel reduces the amount of stress on your foot compared to stilettos.

More Ways to Prevent Corns on Your Feet

If you are overweight, losing excess weight will reduce some of the pressure on your feet and toes.

Using a pumice stone regularly and keeping your feet clean and moisturized can help the areas where skin is thickening before it becomes a corn or callus. Products containing lanolin are particularly effective at rehydrating dry, tough skin.

Shoe inserts like cushioned insoles, toe spacers or foam can keep corns from forming. It’s best to consult with an experienced podiatrist to make sure you get the best type of insert for your feet.

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Treatment Options for Corns

You may treat corns yourself with multiple types of medicated products. These products use chemicals to break down the thickened dead skin. Most of these products are available over the counter, all of which contain the same base ingredient—salicylic acid.

Salicylic acid dissolves the protein that makes up almost all of the corn and the skin that has grown over it. Salicylic acid is usually not recommended for diabetics or anyone with compromised circulation.

Treatments for corns come in different applications including drops, pads or plaster. It may take several applications until the corn is completely gone.
Stopping treatment can result in the corn growing back, even if it seems completely gone. Salicylic acid can feel a little uncomfortable because it is dissolving skin. If you are experiencing a burning feeling or itchiness, you should reduce the amount you’re using or stop altogether.

It’s a good idea to check with a podiatrist before using a home remedy or over-the-counter medication for your corns. In some cases the harsh chemicals can cause foot ulcers and lead to very serious complications.

Should You File Corns?

NEVER use a file, razor, shaver or grinder to try to remove a corn yourself.

Corns may be painful and unsightly, but a foot injury, scarring or infection is worse.

As tempting as DIY “bathroom surgery” for corn removal may be, it is in the best interest of your own health to see a podiatrist if your corns are very thick or salicylic acid isn’t working.

Podiatrist Treatments for Corns

A podiatrist can use a surgical blade to safely remove areas of thick, dead skin from your feet. This can be done in one of our Milwaukee-area podiatry clinics and does not require a hospital stay. Professional trimming or paring down a corn with a scalpel may require more than one session.

If corns have formed because of a foot deformity such as hammertoes or bunions, your podiatrist may recommend surgery to correct the irregularity and prevent corns from re-forming in the same place.

The experienced surgical podiatrists at Advanced Foot & Ankle of Wisconsin will examine your corns or calluses and discuss recommended treatment with you in detail.

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When to See a Podiatrist for Corns

You should see a podiatrist for your corns or calluses if any of the following are true:

You have especially thick corns (or calluses). Very thick corns are more likely to have a serious underlying cause best diagnosed by a foot specialist. Foot deformities or issues with your posture or gait can be treated with professional podiatry care.

Painful corns are interfering with enjoyment of daily activity. If you experience persistent daily pain from a corn or callus, it’s time to seek the help of a podiatrist. Don’t let corns keep you from activities or events you enjoy. A podiatrist will determine what’s causing your corns and the best treatment so you can get back to your life, pain free.

You are elderly, diabetic or have poor circulation. People in these categories or suffering from any serious illness have greater risk of developing serious foot problems if corns are left untreated.

Get Rid of Corns and Relieve Toe Pain Now

The experienced surgical podiatrists at Advanced Foot & Ankle of Wisconsin have seen it all when it comes to corns, calluses and other irritations and problems with toes including treatments for Freiberg's disease. Whether you have corns on top of your toes, corns on your pinkie toes, corns between your toes, corns on your feet or are suffering from corns and bunions, we can help.

Contact Milwaukee's top podiatrists for a consultation to diagnose the source of your toe pain and determine if corns are the cause.