Definition

What are chilblains?

Chilblains are the painful inflammation of small blood vessels in your skin that occur in response to repeated exposure to cold but not freezing air. Also known as pernio, chilblains can cause itching, red patches, swelling and blistering on your hands and feet.

Chilblains usually clear up within one to three weeks, especially if the weather gets warmer. You may have recurrences seasonally for years. Treatment involves protecting yourself from the cold and using lotions to ease the symptoms. Chilblains don’t usually result in permanent injury. But the condition can lead to infection, which may cause severe damage if left untreated.

The best approach to chilblains is to avoid developing them by limiting your exposure to cold, dressing warmly and covering exposed skin.

How common are chilblains?

Anyone can get chilblains at any age. They are as common in children as they are in elderly people. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of chilblains?

The common symptoms of chilblains are:

  • Small, itchy red areas on your skin, often on your feet or hands
  • Possible blistering or skin ulcers
  • Swelling of your skin
  • Burning sensation on your skin
  • Changes in skin color from red to dark blue, accompanied by pain

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Severe or recurring chilblains
  • Chilblains that don’t improve within a few weeks

You should also seek medical advice if you think your skin may have become infected.

Signs of infection include:

  • Swelling and pus forming in the affected area
  • Feeling generally unwell
  • A high temperature (fever) of 38oC or above
  • Swollen glands

Causes

What causes chilblains?

No one knows exactly what causes chilblains. They may be an abnormal reaction of your body to cold exposure followed by rewarming. Rewarming of cold skin can cause small blood vessels under the skin to expand more quickly than nearby larger blood vessels can handle. This results in a bottleneck effect and the blood leaking into nearby tissues.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for chilblains?

There are many risk factors for chilblains, such as:

  • Clothing that is tight or exposes skin to the cold. Wearing tight-fitting clothing and shoes in cold, damp weather may make you more susceptible to chilblains. And skin that’s exposed to cold, damp conditions is more likely to develop chilblains.
  • Your sex and weight. Women are more likely to get chilblains than are children and males. Also, people who weigh about 20 percent less than is expected for their height have an increased risk of chilblains.
  • Environment and season. Chilblains are less likely in colder and drier areas because the living conditions and clothing used in these areas are more protective against cold. Your risk of chilblains is higher if you live in an area with high humidity and cold, but not freezing, temperatures. They are more common from November to April.
  • Having poor circulation. People with poor circulation tend to be more sensitive to changes in temperature, making them more susceptible to chilblains.
  • Having been diagnosed with Raynaud’s disease. People with Raynaud’s disease are more susceptible to chilblains. Either condition can result in sores, but Raynaud’s causes different types of color changes on the skin.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How are chilblains diagnosed?

Diagnosing chilblains is straightforward. If symptoms are present and the patient has been exposed to cold, a doctor will diagnose chilblains.

The doctor will want to rule out other conditions such as lupus, Raynaud’s phenomenon, erythromelalgia, and ischemia. If the diagnosis is in doubt, in rare cases, a skin biopsy may be taken.

How are chilblains treated?

For adults whose chilblains don’t clear up with home remedies, treatment may include prescription drugs:

  • Topical corticosteroid. A corticosteroid such as triamcinolone 0.1 percent cream is applied to the affected area.
  • Blood pressure medicine. A blood pressure lowering drug called nifedipine (Procardia). It can help open up blood vessels.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage chilblains?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with chilblains:

  • Rewarming affected skin gently, without massaging, rubbing or applying direct heat
  • Avoiding cold exposure whenever possible
  • Keeping your affected skin dry and warm, but away from sources of heat
  • Applying lotion to alleviate itching
  • Making sure the affected skin is cleaned with an antiseptic and gently bandaged to prevent infection
  • Avoiding scratching

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: August 14, 2017 | Last Modified: August 14, 2017