Chilblains are small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures. Affected skin may also swell and turn red or dark blue. In severe cases, the surface of the skin may break and sores or blisters can develop. Chilblains most often affect the toes, fingers, heels, ears and nose. Although they can be uncomfortable, they rarely cause any permanent damage and normally heal within a few weeks if further exposure to the cold is avoided.
Chilblains are the result of an abnormal reaction to the cold. When the skin is cold, blood vessels near its surface get narrower and if the skin is then exposed to heat, the blood vessels widen. If this happens too quickly, blood can leak into the surrounding tissue which may cause the swelling and itchiness.
Some people are more at risk of chilblains than others. This includes people with:
- Poor circulation
- A family history of chilblains
- Regular exposure to cold, damp or draughty conditions
- A poor diet or low body weight
- Lupus, a long-term condition that causes swelling in the body’s tissues
- Raynaud’s syndrome, a common condition that affects the blood supply to certain parts of the body, usually the fingers and toes
- People who smoke are more at risk of chilblains as nicotine constricts blood vessels.
Chilblains often get better on their own after a week or two without treatment but there are things that you can do to help yourself:
- Stopping smoking as nicotine causes the blood vessels to constrict, which can make chilblains worse
- Keeping active to improve your circulation
- Wearing warm clothes and insulating your hands, feet and legs
- Avoiding tight shoes and boots
- Moisturising your feet regularly
- Eating at least one hot meal during the day particularly in cold weather
- Warming your shoes on the radiator before you put them on and make sure they are not damp
- Keeping your house well heated
- Limiting your exposure to the cold
If your skin gets cold, warm it up gradually. Heating the skin too quickly, by placing your feet in hot water or near a heater is one of the main causes of chilblains.
It may help to use a soothing lotion, such as calamine or witch hazel, to relieve itching. Specialist creams such as Snowfire and Balmosa may also be recommended by the pharmacist.