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Chilblains

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Some people develop chilblains after their skin is exposed to cold or damp conditions.

Symptoms

  • Following exposure to cold or damp, patches of skin become red and swollen.
  • Pain, burning and itching sensations are felt in the area, and may persist for hours after exposure to cold temperatures.
  • The symptoms are aggravated by a sudden change in temperature, for example warming your feet in front of a radiator, or running hot water over the hands.
  • The affected skin sometimes develops blisters, ulcers or infection, and the skin may crack due to dryness.
  • The most vulnerable parts of the body are the extremities: the toes (especially the little toe), the fingers, the nose and the earlobes.
  • Chilblains usually resolve within 1-3 weeks, but may occur repeatedly in some people. They do not lead to permanent tissue damage.

Causes

The exact cause of chilblains has not been determined, but they seem to be due to a combination of cold temperatures and circulatory problems. Not everyone who’s exposed to cold conditions develops chilblains, so it appears that some people are more sensitive to temperature changes than others.

One possible explanation is that parts of the body may be deprived of the blood they need by the constriction of the blood vessels near the skin with cold temperatures (which is one of the body’s mechanisms for conserving body warmth).

Factors that increase the likelihood of developing chilblains include:

  • Wearing tight shoes that rub on or irritate the skin of the toes
  • Being sedentary
  • Health problems that affect the circulation, for example anaemia or Raynaud’s phenomenon

The elderly and teenagers are particularly susceptible, and women are more likely to be affected by chilblains than men.

Diet and lifestyle

  • Avoid being out in cold or damp weather for long periods.
  • If you have chilblains, don’t expose the affected tissue to a source of heat (such as a hot water bottle or electric heater). Instead, if you’re cold, try to warm your whole body up gradually, or use gentle massage to stimulate blood flow.
  • Don't scratch the chilblains as you may exacerbate the skin damage. Witch hazel lotion may help to relieve the itchiness.
  • Keep your legs and body warm, especially if you have poor circulation – gloves, thermal leggings and socks are all a good idea.  Choose natural fibres like cotton and wool to prevent dampness occurring and allow the skin to breathe. Use layers of lightweight clothes to trap body heat, rather than a single heavy coat. 
  • Regular gentle exercise is an important way to help maintain healthy peripheral circulation. Walking is the ideal choice for many people, but talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program.
  • Maintain your feet carefully. Take extra care to dry the feet after bathing. Keep your nails short and tidy and use moisturising products to keep the skin supple. Only wear shoes that are comfortable and don’t impinge on the toes. Regular visits to your podiatrist may also be beneficial.

Important notes

  • See your doctor if your chilblains are severe, recurrent or ulcerating. People with diabetes should monitor the situation especially carefully.

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Hello, I have just been to see the podiatrist regarding sore feet and toes. He tells me I have chillblains. He had advised me to use a chillblain preparation and to take vitamin B6. Could you please confirm if this is the right treatment? He also says I have Raynauds syndrome. I presently take a Bioflavonoid complex for haemeroids. I will take the Gingko complex but is the B6 correct?
Anonymous
Anonymous 03 Jul 2013