Chilblains are the painful inflammation of small blood vessels that develop on the skin. They occur as a result of continuous exposure to cold air. They cause itching, small red patches, inflammation and blistering, usually on the hands, feet, nose and ears. Chilblains occur mostly from the months of November to April in areas with high humidity and cold.
Chilblains are common in people with peripheral arterial diseases, autoimmune diseases, Raynaud’s, lupus and diabetes.
They normally heal within one to two weeks, especially if you take precautions to keep warm, or if the weather becomes warmer. Many individuals who have suffered from chilblains tend to see the condition recur annually with exposure to cold. As a result, if you are prone to Chilblains, it is recommended to keep your extremities warm during the winter months.
Causes of Chilblains
Chilblains are an abnormal reaction of the skin to cold air, as tiny blood vessels under the skin constrict due to the drop in temperature. The blood supply to these areas of the skin is consequently reduced.
As the skin warms up again, the blood supply to these vessels increases faster than they can handle, and blood leaks into the surrounding tissue. This causes the itchiness and inflammation associated with chilblains.
Even for this not susceptible to chilblains, a sudden temperature increase after exposure to cold can trigger their appearance. This can happen when using a hot water bottle or sitting near a fire to warm up.
Symptoms of Chilblains
The symptoms begin to show some hours after being exposed to the cold weather. You can experience an itchy, burning sensation on the toes or hands. You can have pain, tenderness, and blisters in the affected area, which can prolong healing. In some cases, the skin breaks down to form a small ulcer that can be infected. Infections can be life-threatening if left untreated.
Chilblains do not last long, often clearing after seven to fourteen days. Only repeated exposure to cold, humid conditions will trigger recurrence.
Treatment of Chilblains
Chilblains can be treated by wearing warm gloves and socks in cold weather. Some individuals use witch hazel or calamine lotion to relieve the itchiness. If chilblains result in open blisters or ulcers, you should clean and dress the area and apply an antibiotic to prevent infection. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe nifedipine, a drug that relaxes the small blood vessels, and improves circulation.
You can prevent chilblains by wearing a hat, scarf, and gloves to keep your head, ears and hands warm. When exposed to cold, avoid the temptation to warm up with quickly using hot water bottles or heaters. It is preferable to warm up gradually.
While our Houston winters are relatively mild, there are days when it’s cold and humid enough to cause chilblains among certain individuals. However, it’s just as likely to develop during holiday travel to colder climates. If you experience swelling and itchiness from chilblains affecting your toes, call us at (713) 541-3199 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Maislos, a leading Houston podiatrist. He can check your condition, confirm that there is no indication of frostbite, and help you get back to normal.