SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Chilblains are patches of red, swollen and itchy skin, thought to be caused by a combination of cold weather and poor circulation.
- Extremities such as the toes, fingers, nose and earlobes are most at risk.
- Elderly or sedentary people are most susceptible to developing chilblains.
What are chilblains?
The toes are particularly vulnerable, but other extremities that can develop chilblains include fingers, earlobes and the nose. and damp socks can contribute by further reducing circulation to the toes.
Despite the discomfort, most chilblains don’t cause any permanent damage to tissue, although in serious cases, it can result in an ulcer.
As not everyone exposed to cold and damp conditions will develop chilblains, it is believed that those who do are overly sensitive to changes in weather and temperature.
Symptoms of chilblains
Chilblains most often develop on the toes. Common symptoms include:
- a burning sensation on the skin
- red, blue, purple or white swollen patches
- mild to intense itching
- dry skin, leading to splits and cracks
- possible secondary infection
- ulceration, in severe cases.
Circulatory system and chilblains
Although the exact cause of chilblains remains unknown, it is thought to be associated with the body’s reaction to cold weather.
The body’s comprises arteries, veins and capillaries that carry blood to every cell. The circulatory system is sensitive to temperature.
In hot conditions, the body expands blood vessels close to the skin so that excess heat can be lost to the air, thereby cooling the body. In cold weather, these blood vessels constrict to conserve body heat. This constriction can reduce circulation to the extremities, such as the toes, of blood and warmth, if your peripheral circulation is sluggish.
Abrupt temperature changes and chilblains
The symptoms of chilblains are made worse with sudden temperature changes – for example, entering a warm house after being outside in the cold.
Similarly, heating cold feet too quickly, by propping them next to a heater or using a hot water bottle, may also exacerbate the condition. Therefore it is often better to concentrate on warming your whole body instead.
Treating chilblains at home
Suggestions for treating chilblains at home include:
- Resist the urge to scratch, as this will further damage the skin.
- Massage calamine lotion or witch hazel into the skin to soothe the itching. Your chemist may also supply a suitable product.
- Lanolin or similar, rubbed into the feet, can help retain body heat.
- Wear woollen or cotton socks and try to keep your feet dry.
- Keep your whole body warm.
- Gentle will improve circulation to your feet.
Chilblain prevention tips
Keeping your entire body warm at all times is helpful in preventing chilblains. Suggestions include:
- Avoid long periods of exposure to cold or damp weather.
- Wear several layers of clothing, which trap body heat more efficiently than one bulky layer.
- Make sure your shoes are comfortable and well fitted.
- Dry feet thoroughly after showering or bathing.
- Use woollen or cotton socks to allow your feet to ‘breathe’.
- Perform gentle exercise, like , every day to improve peripheral circulation.
- See a podiatrist for professional treatments and advice.
Professional treatment for chilblains
Severe, ulcerating or recurring chilblains need professional attention. A qualified podiatrist can treat your chilblains and offer advice on prevention.
If you suffer from severe and recurring chilblains, your doctor may prescribe a preventive drug.