Chilblains occur in response to extremely cold temperatures. If you have chilblains you will notice small red itchy painful bumps on your skin, usually in the areas where you feel cold the most: toes, fingers, nose and ears. These bumps appear a few hours after exposure to the cold.
Although as many as one in 10 people in the UK are thought to get chilblains at some point in their lives, doctors are not sure why they get them or why some people are more susceptible than others. They occur frequently in children and the elderly. When skin gets cold, the tiny blood vessels under your skin become narrow. When your body heats up again, it is thought that some blood may leak out causing the swelling. If you have poor circulation or other blood vessel problems, you are more likely to get chilblains.
What are the symptoms of chilblains?
If you are susceptible to chilblains, you will notice burning and itching in the affected areas. You will next notice the typical red swellings which may turn purple or become blisters in extreme cases. While chilblains are very uncomfortable or even painful, they are usually not permanent and usually go away when the warm weather returns.
People with lupus, Raynaud's or who smoke are more at risk of chilblains because these conditions affect your blood vessels.
There are two types of chilblains: chronic and acute. The chronic type of chilblains last for at least five months of the year for at least three years. With chronic chilblains you may also see scarring. People who have acute chilblains usually only have them for one to two weeks.
How are chilblains diagnosed?
If you notice these red, itchy swellings on your skin and you have not had them before, you should see your GP so he or she can rule out other serious conditions, such as lupus or Raynaud's. Chilblains can recur and this is normal but if you notice anything different about the bumps or if the bumps become infected, you should seek medical advice.
How are chilblains treated?
Chilblains are generally treated at home with simple remedies. They are usually self-limiting, meaning they go away on their own.
Keep the affected areas warm, but not too hot (never use a hot water bottle directly on your skin.) You can use Compound Tincture of Benzoin, also called Friar’s Balsam, or another antiseptic lotion to help reduce the chance of infection. Lanolin cream can be used at night to keep your skin soft and supple.
If you notice blisters or if those blisters become infected, seek medical advice right away.
Can chilblains be prevented?
If you are susceptible to chilblains, be sensible in cold weather by wearing gloves and warm clothing worn in layers. If you are outside in the cold, keep active to improve your circulation and do not wear tight shoes because this can restrict circulation. Keep your skin moisturised. Drink hot drinks to keep your entire body warm. If you smoke and get chilblains, try to quit because smoking damages your blood vessels and can make chilblains worse.