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Chilblains: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

What are chilblains?

Chilblains refer to inflammation of the blood capillaries in your skin resulting from cold exposure. This condition commonly affects your feet or hands. These occur when you are exposed to cold temperatures for a considerable time. Also termed as chill burns and pernio, chilblains can cause swelling of the affected area, the formation of red patches and blisters, and itchiness.

More about chilblains

Chilblains generally heal on their own within 1-week to 3-weeks, and also if the temperature increases and the air becomes warm and comfortable. In many cases, people experience seasonal episodes of chilblains for years.

What are the symptoms of chilblains?

The telltale signs and symptoms of chilblains include the following:

  • Inflammation of the skin.
  • The appearance of small and red itchy patches on the skin, especially on your hands and feet
  • Skin ulcers or blisters
  • Discoloration of skin
  • Changes in the color of your skin (red to dark blue) along with pain 
  • Burning sensation on your skin

What are the causes of chilblains?

Though a response to cold exposure, the exact mechanism of chilblains is not known yet. Due to cold, the blood vessels of your toes and fingers shrink or become small. It prevents blood circulation.

And, when your body warms up quickly, the blood vessels tend to expand again, making blood rush to your toes and fingers. It leads to redness, pain, and inflammation.

What are the things to do to get instant relief from chilblains?

In general, chilblains may not need any treatment and go on their own within 7 to 14 days. However, you can do the following things to get instant relief from them:

  • You can rewarm the affected area gently. Rewarming can make you feel better and get relief from the pain and discomfort. However, make sure not to massage, rub, or apply heat directly. These can aggravate the problem even more by irritating the skin on the outside.
  • Make sure to avoid exposure to cold as much as possible. The more you keep yourself warm, the better you will feel, and there will be a lesser chance of chilblains.
  • Keep your skin warm and dry. It will help you prevent getting chilblains. However, refrain from using direct heat as it is not a good idea and can increase your discomfort even more.
  • If you have an itching sensation right at the spot or around it, you can apply a lotion to get relief from the same. 
  • Clean the affected area of your skin with an antiseptic lotion and cover it with a bandage. It will help you prevent infection. 
  • Ensure not to scratch the affected area. Scratching can irritate the surface of the skin and may lead to further problems.
  • If you smoke, then it is advisable to quit smoking; smoking can cause constriction of blood vessels and slow down the process of healing.

What are the risk factors for chilblains?

The following factors are more likely to put you at a higher risk of developing chilblains:

  • Tight-fitting clothes and dresses that expose your skin to cold: If it is cold and you are wearing tight or body-hugging outfits, you might be at a higher risk of getting chilblains. If your clothes happen to expose your skin to the cold, you might also get chilblains.
  • Your gender: If you are a woman, you are more susceptible to chilblains than men.
  • Your weight: If you are underweight (20% less than your ideal body weight in line with your height), you might be at a higher risk of getting chilblains.
  • Environmental factors: If you live in a cold and dry place, your risk of getting chilblains is less owing to the clothing and living conditions you are used to. However, you are more likely to be at a higher risk if you reside in a region where the humidity levels are high with cold weather, not freezing. Chilblains are expected during the colder months of years, i.e., between November and April.
  • Your blood circulation is poor: If your blood circulation is low, you will be more susceptible to temperature changes. It makes you prone to getting chilblains.
  • You have Raynaud’s disease: Having this health condition makes you more prone to getting chilblains. Both Raynaud’s disease and chilblains can cause sores. However, the former leads to changes in the color of your skin.
  • You have lupus (an autoimmune health condition): If you have lupus, you are at a higher risk of getting chilblains. 

What are the treatment options for chilblains?

When it comes to treating chilblains, you may not always  need to go to a doctor. However, if you do see a doctor , he or she will diagnose your condition by examining the affected area. They might inquire about cold exposure(s) you had recently. If needed, your doctor can also ask you to take some other tests to find out if you have any other preexisting condition or not.

As far as the treatment is concerned, your doctor is most likely to suggest you keep yourself dry and warm by covering your feet and hands with gloves and socks and wearing warm clothing. Your doctor is likely to ask you to prevent exposure to cold as much as possible. 

If your chilblains do not go away even after doing all of these, your doctor will likely prescribe medications. It may include the following:

  • Nifedipine: It is a blood pressure drug that helps open up the blood vessels while improving circulation. 
  • Corticosteroid cream: Applying a corticosteroid ointment can help you heal chilblains-induced lesions.

When should you seek medical help?

Although chilblains may go on their own, medical attention is crucial in the following scenarios:

  • Your pain is severe (unusually).
  • Your symptoms are getting worse even after 1 to 2 weeks.
  • You have an infection. 
  • Your symptoms do not go even when the weather is warm.
  • Your blood circulation is poor.
  • You have diabetes.

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What are the possible complications of chilblains?

If you have developed blisters on your skins due to chilblains, it is most likely to develop infections and skin ulcers. 

How can you prevent chilblains?

Following are the preventive measures you can take to prevent chilblains:

  • Try to avoid  exposure to cold and damp.
  • Wear loose-fitting and warm clothes.
  • When going out, make sure to cover yourself as much as possible.
  • Keep your workplace and home warm.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • If you have exposure to cold, make sure to rewarm yourself gradually. Sudden rewarming is likely to worsen your condition. 

Conclusion

Chilblains are not severe and go away on their own. However, if you feel that something is not right, you should immediately go to your doctor.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. What do chilblains on toes look like?

Chilblains on toes look like swollen, shiny, and reddish patches on the skin. The shine on the affected skin is because of the inflammation.

  1. Does getting chilblains show that you may have diabetes?

Although getting chilblains does not necessarily mean that you have diabetes, conditions like high cholesterol and high blood sugar can lead to poor blood circulation and put you at risk of developing chilblains.

  1. Are chilblains life-threatening?

Although chilblains are harmless in most cases, if you have got blisters or infections and you leave it untreated, your condition can become severe.

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The content is carefully chosen and thoughtfully organized and verified by our panel expert dermatologists who have years of experience in their field. We aim to spread awareness to all those individuals who are curious and would like to know more about their skin and beauty
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