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Chilblains: Causes, Symptoms & Prevention

  • Published: 2015-03-11 (Revised/Updated 2015-04-06) : Disabled World (Disabled World).
  • Synopsis: Information regarding causes and prevention of chilblains including treatment methods.

Chilblains also known as pernio and perniosis) is a medical condition that occurs when a predisposed individual is exposed to cold and humidity, causing tissue damage. It is often confused with frostbite and trench foot. Damage to capillary beds in the skin causes redness, itching, inflammation, and sometimes blisters. Chilblains can be reduced by keeping the feet and hands warm in cold weather, and avoiding extreme temperature changes. Chilblains can be idiopathic, but may also be a manifestation of a serious medical condition that needs to be investigated. A history of chilblains is suggestive of a connective tissue disease (such as lupus).

Main Document

Quote: "Even though chilblains do not usually result in permanent injury to the affected person, they may lead to infection which may cause severe damage if it remains untreated."

'Chilblains,' are the painful inflammation of small blood vessels in a person's skin that happen in response to sudden warming from colder temperatures. Chilblains is also known as, 'pernio,' and may cause red patches, itching, blistering and swelling on extremities such as your fingers, toes, nose and ears. Chilblains might improve on its own, particularly as the weather warms up. It usually clears up within a week to three weeks, although they might recur seasonally for years.

Treatments usually consist of lotions and medication. Even though chilblains do not usually result in permanent injury to the affected person, they may lead to infection which may cause severe damage if it remains untreated. The best approach to chilblains is to avoid developing them in the first place by limiting your exposure to cold, dressing warmly and covering skin that is exposed to the weather.

Symptoms of Chilblains

Chilblains has a number of signs and symptoms associated with it. The signs and symptoms of chilblains can include the following:

Some people who experience chilblains never need to visit a doctor, they just use lotions to help with itching and pain. If, however, the pain becomes too severe, or if the affected skin starts to appear as if it may be infected, a doctor can help with treatment. Be sure to pursue medical attention if your skin does not improve after a couple of weeks have passed. If you have diabetes or poor circulation, visit a doctor promptly after discovering chilblains in order to prevent potential complications.

Causes of Chilblains

The precise reason chilblains occur remains an unknown. They might be a reaction of a person's body to cold exposure followed by re-warming. Re-warming of cold skin might cause small blood vessels under the skin to expand more rapidly than nearby larger blood vessels have the ability to handle resulting in a, 'bottleneck,' effect and the blood leaking into nearby tissues.

Risk Factors for Chilblains

Several risk factors exist in relation to chilblains. Below are some risk factors that might increase a person's risk of chilblains.

Gender: Women are more likely to experience chilblains; why remains unknown.

Exposure of Skin to Cold: Skin that is exposed to damp and cold conditions is more likely to develop chilblains.

Being Underweight: People who weigh around 20% less than is expected for their height have an increased risk of chilblains.

Time of Year: Chilblains are more common from early winter through spring. Chilblains often disappear completely in the spring.

Poor Circulation: People with poor circulation tend to be more sensitive to changes in temperature, something that makes them more susceptible to chilblains.

Your Location: With a bit of irony, chilblains are less likely in drier and colder areas because the living conditions and clothing used in these locations are more protective against the cold. However, if you live in an area with low but not freezing temperatures and high humidity, your risk of chilblains is increased.

A Diagnosis of Raynaud's Phenomenon: People with Raynaud's phenomenon, which is another cold-related condition affecting a person's extremities, are at increased risk of chilblains. Either condition may result in sores, yet Raynaud's phenomenon causes different types of color changes to a person's skin.

Chilblains may cause complications if your skin blisters. If this occurs, you might develop ulcers and infections. Besides being painful, infections are potentially life-threatening if not treated.

Treatment of Chilblains

Some different forms of treatments exist for chilblains. Descriptions of these treatment options are described below.

Corticosteroid Creams: Topical corticosteroids might help to relieve swelling and itching.

Infection Prevention: If your skin has broken, treatment of chilblains also includes cleaning and dressing your wounds to prevent infection.

Prescription Medication: A blood pressure medication called, 'nifedipine,' is at times used to treat the cause of chilblains because it might help to open up blood vessels. Another medication that helps to improve blood flow that a doctor may prescribe for chilblains is, 'pentoxifylline.' Even though chilblains usually clear up after a week to three weeks, there are things you can do in the meantime. Some steps you might take to ease your symptoms include the following:

Preventing Chilblains

To prevent chilblains in the first place, limit or avoid your exposure to the cold. Dress in warm layers of clothing and cover all exposed skin as completely as you are able to when going outside in cold weather. Make sure to keep your feet, hands and face warm and keep your workplace or home comfortably warm as well. If your skin is exposed to cold, it is helpful to re-warm it slowly because sudden re-warming of cold skin might worsen chilblains.

Learn More About Chilblains


The College of Podiatry

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