By Clare Edie, Associate Podiatrist
What are chilblains?
Chilblains are small red or purple swellings on the skin that can become increasingly painful. These can often swell or dry out and crack leaving the skin fragile and at risk of infection. Severe cases can often blister or break down causing ulcers (sores) to develop especially if in areas of high pressure such as the feet. These can leak fluid and again leave the foot at risk to infection. They usually feel itchy or have a burning sensation which can become worse when in entering into warm temperatures from the cold.
Where do they occur?
Chilblains are most commonly found on the feet or hands (usually the fingers and toes) but can also occur on the ears and nose.
What causes chilblains?
Chilblains develop as a reaction to the cold. Tiny blood vessels constrict in lower temperatures until the area warms up again causing some leakage of fluid into the surrounding tissue. This is an abnormal reaction to the cold which most commonly occurs in those with poor circulation and problematic blood vessels (e.g. raynauds and peripheral vascular disease) as well as those working in colder environments. Various hormone imbalances and poor diet can also be a factor.
How are chilblains treated?
If you do develop chilblains the first thing to remember is not to scratch the area. Although itchy, the skin is more fragile and any friction or scratching can cause a break in the skin. Lotions to sooth the itch such as calamine and witch hazel can help. If the area has broken down, cover with an antiseptic dressing and contact your Podiatrist for further advice.
Those with medical conditions such as Diabetes or Peripheral Vascular Disease should be especially careful and be sure to make their GP or Podiatrist aware of the area as soon as possible. If there is no break in the skin a preparation can be bought over the counter from your Pharmacist which you can apply daily until healed.
How can I prevent chilblains?
The best prevention for chilblains is to keep the whole body, especially the hands and feet, as warm as possible in colder temperatures. This is extremely important for those with poor circulation and who are most at risk. If you have a job where you work in colder temperatures, either indoors or out, ask your employer about providing warm clothing to keep warm whilst at work. Warming foot rubs, containing lanolin, can help keep feet warm and retain the heat when applied regularly.