What are Chilblains?
Chilblains are also referred to as pernio or perniosis. They are small, itchy, painful swellings that generally appear on the skin after several hours of exposure to cold temperatures. Thus, they tend to develop during the winter months.
They are more likely to occur on the extremities such as the toes, fingers, nose and earlobes, which are the first areas to become cold. Other areas of the skin such as the heels, thighs and lower legs can also be affected in extreme temperatures.
What Happens During Cold Exposure
A sudden increase in temperature and exposure to humidity increases the likelihood of chilblains developing. While one solitary chilblain may develop, often several will join together to form a larger, swollen red area of the skin.
When the skin becomes cold, the tiny blood vessels beneath the skin narrow and constrict to prevent the loss of body heat through the skin. If the skin re-warms too quickly, there is some leakage of fluid from the blood vessels into the tissues. This causes areas of the skin to become inflamed and swollen, leading to chilblains.
People with poor circulation are also more prone to developing chilblains. However, chilblains can affect anyone, and after an initial outbreak, they are more likely to recur each winter. Ironically, in countries with extremely cold temperatures, chilblains are actually less common since the air is drier and there is less exposure to a sudden increase in external temperature.
The symptoms and signs of chilblains include:
- Itching, burning sensation
- Reddish appearance which may change to purple in color
- Pain and tenderness
- Skin over the chilblain may form a blister
- Skin breaks down and becomes an ulcer, causing a skin infection to develop
What Causes Chilblains?
Some people are more susceptible to chilblains than others. As yet, the cause has not been determined.
However, there are factors that are known to contribute to the development of chilblains such as poor circulation, poor nutrition, anemia, a familial tendency, hormonal changes, damp living conditions, connective tissue disorders, and bone marrow disorders. Certain drugs, such as beta-blockers, may constrict tiny blood vessels and cause recurring chilblains.
Help for Chilblains
Chilblains usually last for about 7-14 days, and then gradually resolve during the following week. Treatment is not typically needed, but there is a wide range of soothing creams and lotions available to relieve the pain.
Your doctor may prescribe a topical steroid cream to reduce the itchiness and discomfort. Heparin ointment may also help to improve circulation in the affected area. Occasionally prescription medication is necessary.
If you suffer from diabetes or poor circulation, it is advisable to consult a podiatrist. A podiatrist can provide padding and pressure relief for chilblain symptoms, as well as reduce pain in corns and calluses. A course of UV light at the onset of winter will also benefit circulation in the feet.
Natural Treatment Options for Chilblains
There are also natural alternatives such as herbal and homeopathic remedies that are highly effective in the treatment of chilblains. These remedies are safe, gentle to use in the body, and encourage healthy circulation in all extremities.
An extremely effective herb used in traditional Chinese medicine is Gingko biloba, which restores the functioning of the circulatory system and improves peripheral blood flow to the extremities. Zingiber officinalis is more commonly known as Ginger, and acts as a warming circulatory stimulant and anti-inflammatory. In addition, Rosmarinus officinale (Rosemary) dilates and strengthens blood vessels and increases peripheral and cerebral circulation.
More Information on Chilblains
How to Prevent Chilblains
There are some ways to prevent chilblains developing:
- Keep your hands and feet warm in cold weather by wearing thick wool socks and gloves
- Cover up with tights, long trousers and high-top boots
- Warm up gradually and avoid heating the skin after being out in the cold
- Do not expose the skin to any source of heat such as hot water bottles and heaters, especially if your hands and feet are cold
- If the skin is broken, use an antiseptic dressing to prevent the chilblains becoming infected
- Thermal or insulating insoles can help to keep the foot warm to prevent chilblains from developing
- Exercise vigorously before going out into the cold to improve circulation
- Stop smoking naturally, as smoking interferes with the circulation of blood through blood vessels