What are chilblains?

Chilblains are itchy, red or purple swellings that occur on the skin, most commonly the toes. They may also develop on fingers, ears and other parts of the body on rare occasions. Symptoms include an itching that develops in to a small, painful swelling. The swelling can dry out and ulcerate, leaving the foot open to infection, if left untreated.

How do they develop?

Chilblains are caused by exposure to cold and damp conditions. Unlike frostbite, which affects the extremities in sub-zero temperatures, chilblains largely occur in cold, damp conditions about freezing. For this reason, they are an extremely common complaint in Ireland during winter.

When the skin has been exposed to the chilly conditions, the arterioles in the toes can contract. Afterwards, when the skin is warmed up again, the arterioles expand and blood rushes in, causing congestion and inflammation.

Many people experience cold feet in poor weather, but most will not develop chilblains. Older people are particularly susceptible because they are more likely to have reduced circulation. Other people at risk include young people who work outdoors, and people with anaemia.

How are they treated?

Chilblains will go away naturally within a few weeks, but the process of healing can be accelerated by applying friar's balsam or an over the counter lotion to the affected area. A GP, chiropodist or pharmacist can advise you on suitable products.

It is important not to scratch chilblains, as you might break the skin and cause them to ulcerate. Calamine lotion, or a similar lotion, will relieve much of the discomfort of the itching.

If the chilblain does ulcerate, it will need to be covered with an antiseptic dressing to avoid infection. Diabetics and others with ongoing medical conditions are advised to consult their family doctor with ulcerated chilblains.

Can they be prevented?

To avoid getting chilblains, it is important to keep the feet warm, especially at night. You ought to wear socks in bed, rather than using a hot water bottle, and to use good quality, dry footwear at all times in cold, damp weather.

Avoid warming your feet at a fire, or on a hot water bottle, immediately you come in from the cold. Chilblains are much less likely to develop if the feet are allowed to warm slowly.

People with bad circulation ought to keep their entire body warm, not merely the feet. Thermal underwear, and warm coverings for the legs, are advised.

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