Chilblains are swollen, painful patches that appear on the skin of our extremities in cold weather. Also known as pernio, perniosis, or cold-induced vascular disorder, chilblains are generally considered harmless, although they can be itchy, painful, and cause lesions or blisters. They are usually red in colour, although they can be blue, and the skin surrounding chilblains may look shiny as a result of swelling.
Chilblains usually form on our extremities i.e. the hands, feet, nose, or ears. They form when a person is exposed to cold, but not freezing, weather, which may be exacerbated if it is also damp. Although medical experts are not 100% sure why they occur, it is believed that cold temperatures cause blood vessels near the skin to contract.
If these vessels warm up too quickly, they can block the path of other blood vessels, forcing them to leak into the skin. When this blood leaks into the skin, it causes the area to swell. This swelling then puts pressure on the local nerves, which can cause an itchy, painful, or burning sensation.
The main risk factors of developing chilblains include having family members who suffer from the condition, poor circulation, and being underweight. It is believed that poor circulation makes it easier for blood vessels to be forced into the skin, while being underweight makes a person’s blood vessels more susceptible to the effects of exposure. Women, children, and the elderly are also more likely to develop chilblains.
In rare cases, chilblains can cause blisters, in which case you need to be aware of the risk of developing an infection. If blisters do form, it is advisable that you visit your GP, who may prescribe corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, or blood pressure medication to help ease the pressure on your blood vessels. In most cases however, a visit to the doctor is not necessary, and the condition will usually clear itself up within 1 to 3 weeks.
If you do notice that chilblains are beginning to form, the best thing you can do is start to warm the area up, slowly. Wrap the area, and sit in a warm, draught-free room. Do not place it in hot water or on direct heat, which will warm the vessels too abruptly and make the problem worse. You should also avoid rubbing the affected area, which will cause further irritation and inflammation.
Although not considered a dangerous condition, chilblains can be uncomfortable. Developing chilblains once means you are likely to develop them again, usually on a season basis. If they do not appear to be healing after 3 weeks, or if they recur frequently, you should visit your GP. Otherwise, the best ways to prevent chilblains from forming in the first place are to wrap up and avoid exposure to cold weather.