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Chilblains - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Chilblains are small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures. They affect the body's extremities, such as the toes, fingers, heels, ears and nose.

Chilblains are uncomfortable but can be prevented. They usually develop several hours after exposure to the cold, and it is possible to get several at the same time.

The symptoms of chilblains include burning and itching on the hands and feet and a change of skin colour. In some cases, the skin may become sore and blister.  

Some people have chilblains every winter that last for up to five months. These can cause persistent sores that may lead to scarring.

What causes chilblains?

Chilblains are an abnormal reaction to the cold. When the skin is cold, blood vessels near its surface get narrower. If the skin is then exposed to heat, the blood vessels become wider. If this happens too quickly, blood can leak into the surrounding tissue. This is thought to be the reason for the swelling and itchiness associated with chilblains.

Chilblains can occur at any age, but are more common in children and elderly people. The condition also affects women more than men. Certain people, such as people with poor circulation, are more susceptible to chilblains.

Read more information about the causes of chilblains.

Chilblains are common in northern Europe, where damp, cold weather is usual in winter. They are less common in countries with extremely cold winters, because the air is drier and people have homes and clothing that conserve heat better.

Treating chilblains

Chilblains will often get better on their own after one to two weeks if you keep warm. Several creams and lotions are available to treat chilblains. However, there is no clinical evidence that they work and they are not recommended.

If chilblains keep returning, your GP may recommend a drug called nifedipine. This works by relaxing the blood vessels, allowing better circulation.

Read more information about how chilblains are treated.

As treatment is not always effective, it is better to prevent getting chilblains by limiting your exposure to the cold and looking after your feet. Read more about preventing chilblains.

When to see your GP or chiropodist

Redness and itching on the skin of your feet, hands or other extremities are obvious signs that you have chilblains. However, if you are unsure, speak to your GP or chiropodist.

If your chilblains have broken, cracked or become sore, see your GP or chiropodist. Do not scratch the skin as it can break easily and become infected.

Medical Review: February 16, 2012
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