Chilblains refer to redness, swelling and tenderness of the small blood vessels in the skin. These small blood vessels become painfully inflamed when there is sudden warmth after exposure to cold temperature. Chilblains are also known as pernio and are characterized by redness, swelling, itching and blistering usually on the fingers, toes, nose and ears. Chilblains subside within a couple of weeks after treatment. However they may recur for years especially during very cold weather. The treatment for chilblains mainly involves medications and topical applications. Chilblains are not a serious condition and do not lead to any permanent damage, but they can cause severe infection especially if left untreated. You can prevent chilblains by avoiding exposure to cold.
Symptoms of Chilblains
The common signs and symptoms of chilblains include:
- Skin discoloration from red to bluish-purple
- Itching in affected areas on the hands and feet
- Burning sensation
It is not always necessary to see a doctor when you have chilblains. Over-the-counter topical applications are usually helpful in relieving itching and pain. However in some cases chilblains may be severe and there may be some signs of infection. In these cases, medical treatment is necessary. It is also important to get medical care in case the affected areas do not improve after a couple of weeks and if you suffer from diabetes or circulatory problems as there may be complications in such cases.
Causes of Chilblains
The causes of chilblains are mainly related to the abnormal reaction of the body to cold. They occur in areas that undergo sudden and quick warming after exposure to cold. For example, you may develop chilblains if you warm your hands directly over a fire or heater. The quick heating of the skin leads to expansion of the small blood vessels beneath the skin. This results in leakage of blood into the surrounding tissues.
You may be at an increased risk of developing chilblains due to the following factors:
- Exposure to Cold: If your skin is exposed to cold temperatures and then warmed, you may be prone to developing chilblains.
- Female Gender: Women are known to be at higher risk of getting chilblains. The exact reason for this is unknown.
- Body Weight: Individuals who are underweight are at a higher risk of chilblains.
- Climate: Chilblains are not so common in regions that are very cold and dry, because clothing and living conditions in such areas offer adequate protection from the cold. In areas that have a cold climate along with high humidity, the risk of chilblains is higher.
- Seasons: Chilblains occur more commonly between the months of November and April.
- Ill-fitting Footwear: Wearing shoes that do not fit well may lead to pressure on the skin and this may result in a higher risk of chilblains. Existing chilblains may also worsen due to this.
- Circulatory Problems: Individuals who experience problems in circulation are more vulnerable to temperature changes and this puts them at a higher risk of developing chilblains.
- Raynaud's Phenomenon: This condition affects the extremities and is associated with cold temperatures. Those diagnosed with Raynauds phenomenon are more prone to developing chilblains.
Individuals who are at the highest risk of developing chilblains include the elderly and children. People who consume too much alcohol and habitual smokers are also at risk, as the compounds found in alcohol and nicotine inhibit circulation in the body. Hunger, dehydration and fatigue can also adversely affect the bodys ability to handle cold temperatures properly.
Remedies for Chilblains
Treatment for chilblains includes topical corticosteroid applications that alleviate redness, swelling and itching. In some cases, a medication to reduce blood pressure is used to treat chilblains because this helps to open up the blood vessels. Treatment for wounds may be necessary in case the skin has broken. This will help to prevent further infection.
There are also some chilblains natural remedies that may help to relieve the symptoms. These include the following:
- Elevate the affected area of the body in order to bring down the swelling. Also remain indoors and avoid further exposure to the cold. The body needs to naturally adapt to warm temperature.
- Once your body adjusts to the room temperature, gently massage the affected area to improve blood flow.
- A popular chilblains home remedy involves the use of black peppercorns and sesame oil. Take a few peppercorns and fry in hot sesame seed oil. You can even use mustard oil. Filter the solution and use it to massage the affected area. Do this only if the skin is not bruised or broken as it can lead to further pain and inflammation.
- Add one egg white, one tablespoon of honey and glycerin to wheat flour and mix well. Apply this over the chilblains before going to bed at night. This will protect the area from the cold and enable healing. Wash with warm water the next morning.
- To enhance circulation in the body during winters, massage with warm oil. You can also add some lemon juice to the oil. The discarded lemon halves may be used to rub the toes and fingers.
- Dipping your fingers into warm oatmeal porridge for a few minutes is also helpful.
- Add some salt to a slice of raw potato and rub gently over the affected areas. This will reduce redness and itchiness.
- Add a few drops of fresh garlic juice to warm oil and apply to the affected areas.
- Add herbs such as thyme and ginger to warm water to make a beneficial footsoak. You can add about five to six sprigs of fresh thyme in a stocking and immerse into the water. You can even use thyme oil or freshly grated ginger. Avoid putting the affected foot directly into the warm water. First dip them in and shake them around so that the blood flow begins.
- Apply the gel obtained from aloe vera leaves to bruised or blistered skin.
- Drink warm tea made out of the herb horsetail in order to promote the repair and recovery of damaged tissues due to chilblains. Add about one teaspoon of the herb to boiling water and drink this thrice every day. You can also encourage healing by drinking rose hip tea. Rose hip is believed to be one of the richest plant sources of vitamin C, which aids in quick rebuilding of affected tissues.
- You can add infusions of herbs such as horsetail, oak tree bark and horse chestnut to warm bath water to help in healing of the affected area.
- To prevent further aggravation of chilblains, keep the feet warm at all times. Wear full trousers, leg warmers, long woolen socks or high boots.
- Avoid exposing the skin to any direct heat especially after exposure to cold.
- Avoid smoking as it can hamper circulation in the small blood vessels and place you at a higher risk for developing chilblains.
- Wear thermal insoles to keep the feet warm.
- The herb gingko biloba is known to help in the treatment for chilblains. It helps to enhance the functioning of the circulation system and improves the flow of blood to the extremities.
- Ginger is also a great natural remedy for chilblains as it boosts circulation and has anti-inflammatory properties.
- Rosemary is another beneficial herb for chilblains. It improves the strength of the blood vessels and aids in proper circulation.
- Warm, moist wraps can be used to treat burns due to frostbite. This will help to cool the skin and alleviate skin discoloration and swelling.
- The affected areas may be rubbed gently with camphor oil.
Diet for Chilblains
Include plenty of foods that are rich in vitamins C and A in the diet. Vitamin C helps in quick healing of bodily tissues and ensures proper recovery. Also incorporate millets and spinach as they contain substantial amounts of calcium. Other beneficial foods to include in the chilblains diet include egg yolk, sesame seeds, almonds and foods rich in vitamins E and K.
Suggestions for Chilblains
The following measures help to prevent chilblains:
- Protect your body from the cold by wearing warm clothing.
- Cover your body properly when going outdoors in cold weather.
- Always wear shoes that fit comfortably. Refrain from wearing shoes or stockings that are too tight as they can disrupt circulation.
- Avoid wearing damp clothing.
- Ensure that your face, hands and feet are kept warm.
- Make sure that your living conditions are warm and comfortable.
- In case you are exposed to cold, ensure that you re-warm your body gradually.
- Raza N, Habib A, Razvi SK, Dar NR. Constitutional and behavioral risk factors for chilblains: a case-control study from Pakistan. Wilderness Environ Med. 2010 Mar;21(1):17-21.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.wem.2009.12.023. Epub 2009 Dec 22. PubMed PMID: 20591349.
Chilblains - Frequently asked questions