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What are Chilblains?
Chilblains can affect anybody although are more common in women and young children or the elderly. Chilblains are often small, red and itchy lumps that appear on areas including toes, fingers, ears and nose. They are caused by an abnormal reaction to cold temperatures and are therefore a winter complaint. The swellings caused by chilblains usually develop several hours after being exposed to the cold. Chilblains are usually very uncomfortable and can be quite painful and irritating.
Although chilblains are very itchy, it is important to try and discourage scratching as this can cause scarring of the skin and permanent discolouration of the skin. It can also allow ulcers to form on the skin or for the skin to become infected if it has blistered or been scratched.
How can you get chilblains?
Chilblains are mainly caused by the skin getting extremely cold and then being heated up again too quickly afterwards, for example by placing cold hands on a warm radiator after coming in from the cold.
When a person is exposed to cold weather, our body responds naturally to the cold by allowing our blood vessels get narrower to allow the blood to move deeper inside the skin to help preserve the body’s core temperature. The blood vessels will then expand to allow the normal flow of blood once our bodies are exposed to the warmth again. If our bodies are exposed too quickly to the heat, the body’s extremities (hands, feet, nose, ears) cannot always cope with the large increase of flow of blood. This can cause blood to leak into surrounding tissue areas which causes swelling, irritation and discomfort as chilblains are formed.
Chilblains can affect anybody but some people are more susceptible to getting chilblains than others. The people more at risk of suffering from this condition include:
- Those with poor circulation
- Those with a family history of chilblains
- People with a poor diet and a very low body weight
- People who are often exposed to damp conditions
- People who smoke
- Wearing poorly fitted shoes can also cause chilblains
If the chilblains are not exposed further to the extreme cold temperatures, they should heal within a few weeks without any medical intervention. However, they are usually very itchy and uncomfortable and you may wish to try some over-the-counter creams or lotions to soothe the pain although it is important to read all instructions and understand that although they may ease the pain, there is no clinical evidence at this time to suggest that they help the condition.
It is vital that you try to eliminate any scratching of the areas affected by chilblains.
If you suffer from regular, re-occurring chilblains, your doctor may be able to suggest a drug to help your blood circulate round your body more easily.
Should I see my doctor?
The first time you notice chilblains, it is likely that you will want a proper diagnosis from your doctor although this is not necessary and there is nothing that you doctor can do to help chilblains.
However, you should always visit your doctor if the skin becomes broken or cracked or is extremely sore.
How can I help to prevent chilblains?
Here are some suggestions to help prevent chilblains:
- Limit exposure to the cold
- Wear warm clothes and insulate your hands, feet and legs by using layers
- Do not wear tight fitting shoes
- Moisturise your extremities (hands, feet, face) regularly
- Keep active as this helps your circulation
- Ensure you eat a hot meal each day
- Warm your shoes before wearing them
- Avoid damp areas
- Avoid draughty areas
There is no need for concern if you suffer from chilblains whilst pregnant. Pregnant women are slightly more susceptible to chilblains due to circulation changes as your body grows, changes and prepares for childbirth, but there is no need to worry. Try some of the suggestions for preventing chilblains and ensure you keep yourself warm and healthy by eating properly and exercising. You may wish to mention it to your midwife at one of your antenatal appointments.
If you have any questions about chilblains, do not hesitate to visit your doctor for more advice and help.
by Jenny, mum to William and James
Pregnancy and Parenting - Toddlers - Teenagers