Very cold temperatures cause small blood vessels to tighten, limiting circulation towards the extremities, which are already at a disadvantage for being so far from the body’s core.Chilblains are small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures. They most often affect the body’s extremities, such as the toes, heels, ears and nose. Chilblains can be uncomfortable, but rarely cause any permanent damage. They normally heal within a few weeks if further exposure to the cold is avoided.
Signs and symptoms of chilblains
Chilblains usually develop several hours after exposure to the cold. They typically cause a burning and itching sensation in the affected areas, which can become more intense if you go into a warm room.
In severe cases, the surface of the skin may break and sores or blisters can develop. It’s important not to scratch the skin as it can break easily and become infected.
What causes chilblains?
Chilblains are the result of an abnormal reaction to the cold. Some people develop chilblains due to poor circulation since cold temperatures cause small blood vessels to tighten and limit circulation towards the extremities like your toes.
When the skin is cold, blood vessels near its surface get narrower. If the skin is then exposed to heat, the blood vessels become wider. If this happens too quickly, blood vessels near the surface of the skin can’t always handle the increased blood flow.
This can cause blood to leak into the surrounding tissue, which may cause the swelling and itchiness associated with chilblains.
Chilblains often get better on their own after a week or two. It may help to use a soothing lotion, such as calamine or witch hazel, to relieve itching..
If your chilblains are severe and keep returning, speak to your doctor who can prescribe proper medicine.
If you’re susceptible to chilblains, you can reduce your risk of developing them by:
- limiting your exposure to the cold
- looking after your feet
- taking steps to improve your circulation
Complications of chilblains
If you have severe or recurring chilblains, there’s a small risk of further problems developing, such as:
- infection from blistered or scratched skin
- ulcers forming on the skin
- permanent discoloration of the skin
- scarring of the skin
It’s often possible to avoid these complications by:
- not scratching or rubbing the affected areas of skin
- not directly overheating the chilblains (by using hot water, for example)
You can also help reduce your risk of infection by cleaning any breaks in your skin with antiseptic and covering the area with an antiseptic dressing.