Chilblains are small, red, itchy patches that are the result of an abnormal reaction to the cold. This means that they're common in the UK because of the typical damp, cold weather that happens in the winter. When our skin gets cold, blood vessels near the surface get narrower, and if we then warm up the skin the blood vessels become wider again. If this happens too fast, the blood vessels near the surface of our skin can struggle to deal with this increased blood flow and this can then cause blood to leak into the surrounding tissue, and so cause the swelling, itchiness and sometimes pain associated with chilblains.
Chilblains often occur on your extremities, such as fingers, toes, ears and nose, but they can occur anywhere on the body. They tend to occur a few hours after exposure to the cold and can last up to a couple of weeks but usually clear up without treatment.
They can affect anyone, but most commonly affect women and middle-aged adults. People most at risk of chilblains are smokers and anyone with poor general nutrition, or people who are out in the cold often such as builders and who take part in winter activities such as skiing and ice-skating.
There are also a few conditions that put you at risk of chilblains such as disorders of the bone marrow, connective tissue and Raynaud's phenomenon. In the elderly, chilblains can occur as a result of an underlying condition.
It’s very important to avoid cold, wet environments. If that's not possible then wearing warm clothing – especially gloves, socks and hats – is the best way to fend off extreme cold.
Soaking your hands in warm water before exposure to the cold has been said to help prevent chilblains occurring. Keeping fit and active also helps improve blood flow and circulation.
If you are a smoker, kicking the habit will go a long way to prevent the condition worsening or reduce the frequency of attacks.
If the symptoms are bothersome, there are creams that you can apply directly to the area to combat the constriction of the vessels, such as nitroglycerine. Steroid creams such as hydrocortisone 1% can also be used to relieve inflammation, redness and itching.
If you are getting regular chilblains and they are affecting your life, or the symptoms are severe, you should book a routine appointment with your doctor. Your doctor will ask you questions about your health and examine you. They may discuss options for further investigations such as blood tests, or treatments to try and improve the symptoms.
If a widespread area is involved or you have severe symptoms, your doctor may consider oral treatments such as nifedipine.
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