Chilblains: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Table of Contents

Everything You Need to Know About Chilblains

Chilblains, a term that might sound unfamiliar to some, refers to a common cold-weather ailment that affects countless individuals worldwide. As the mercury dips and winter’s chill sets in, our bodies react in various ways to the changing environment. For some, this means the emergence of itchy, painful patches on their skin known as chilblains. While many cold-related conditions like frostbite are widely recognised, chilblains often remain shrouded in mystery, leading to misconceptions and myths.

The term “chilblains” originates from the combination of the Old English words “chill” and “blain” (meaning sore or swelling), aptly describing the condition’s nature. It’s a testament to the age-old struggle humans have faced against the biting cold. In today’s world, where central heating and insulated clothing are common, one might wonder why such a condition persists. Yet, despite our technological advancements, the human body’s fundamental reactions to cold remain, and chilblains are a testament to that.

For those affected, it’s about comfort, well-being, and ensuring that the winter months are spent in warmth and ease rather than discomfort.

A couple trying to keep warm

What are Chilblains?

Chilblains, medically known as perniosis, are small, itchy, and painful swellings that develop in response to cold temperatures. These swellings typically occur on the skin of the extremities – the toes, fingers, nose, and ears. While they can be uncomfortable, chilblains rarely result in permanent damage to the skin. However, recurrent episodes can lead to chronic changes. The condition usually clears up in 2 or 3 weeks, especially if the weather gets warmer. Even though it may clear up you may get the symptoms each winter for years after.

Symptoms of Chilblains

They can manifest in various ways, affecting both the appearance and sensation of the skin. Here’s a deeper look into the symptoms:

Appearance

  • Colour: Initially, chilblains may present as red patches on the skin. Over time, these patches can darken to a purple or bluish hue, indicating a lack of oxygenated blood in the area.
  • Texture: The skin might feel rough to the touch, and in some cases, the affected area can become dry and scaly.
  • Swelling: One of the most common symptoms is swelling. This inflammation can be painful and is a result of the body’s response to the cold.
  • Blisters and Ulceration: In more severe cases, the skin can blister, which can be filled with clear fluid or blood. If these blisters break or if the skin cracks, there’s a risk of ulceration. Ulcers are open sores that can be painful and might ooze. They also pose a risk of secondary bacterial infections.

Sensation

  • Itching: Almost everyone with chilblains experiences itching. This itch can range from mild to severe and can be exacerbated by warming the skin.
  • Burning and Pain: Along with itching, a burning sensation is common. Some people also report a throbbing pain in the affected area.
  • Tenderness: The skin might become tender to the touch, and this tenderness can last even after other symptoms have subsided.

Duration and Progression

  • Initial Onset: Symptoms usually appear within hours of exposure to cold and can intensify as the skin warms.
  • Peak: The symptoms typically peak within 24 to 48 hours and can be quite uncomfortable during this period.
  • Resolution: Most chilblains will start to resolve after about a week. However, the duration can vary based on the severity and the individual’s overall health.
  • Reoccurrence: If the skin is repeatedly exposed to cold conditions without adequate protection, chilblains can recur. Chronic chilblains can lead to permanent skin changes, such as discoloration or scarring.
Chilblain on toes

Causes and Risk Factors

Chilblains result from an abnormal skin reaction to cold temperatures. When the skin is exposed to cold, blood vessels near its surface constrict. If the skin is then suddenly warmed, these vessels can’t always handle the increased blood flow, leading to chilblains.

Risk Factors:

  • Poor circulation
  • Being underweight
  • Having a family history of chilblains
  • Regular exposure to cold and damp conditions

Treatment Options

Beyond home care, ensure to consult a healthcare professional if you suspect you have chilblains, especially if they don’t improve after a week.

  1. Warmth: Gradually warm the skin. Avoid direct heat as it can worsen the condition.
  2. Creams and Medications: Over-the-counter creams can help soothe the skin. In severe cases, a doctor might prescribe corticosteroid creams or antihypertensive medications.
  3. Protection: Products like Profoot’s lambswool insoles and our Double Cushion insoles can provide added comfort and protection.

Prevention Tips

  1. Clothing: Wear warm gloves and socks in cold weather.
  2. Avoid Rapid Temperature Changes: Don’t expose your skin to sudden warmth after it’s been cold.
  3. Skincare: Keep your skin moisturised to prevent dryness and cracking. FAQs

FAQs

  • Q: Can chilblains lead to infections?
    • A: If chilblains break open, they can become infected. It’s essential to keep the area clean and seek medical advice if you suspect an infection.
  • Q: Are certain people more prone to chilblains?
    • A: Yes, people with poor circulation, Raynaud’s disease, or lupus might be more susceptible.
  • Q: Can I use a heating pad to warm up my toes or fingers affected by chilblains?
    • A: Direct heat can worsen the condition. It’s better to warm up gradually.

Conclusion

Chilblains can be a painful and uncomfortable condition, especially during the colder months. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatments, you can take steps to prevent them and seek appropriate care if they occur. For more information on foot care and related products, visit or contact us directly.

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Dr James
Dr James

Dr. James Davidson MBChB who graduated from the University of Manchester in 2015 and went on to train in hospitals across the North West of England. He has experience working in both hospital medicine, and the community, and played his part as a front line worker on the COVID-19 wards. He now works as a freelance medical writer and medical education entrepreneur.

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