People living in a cold and humid climate must be aware of chilblains. It is a medical condition that occurs due to the sudden warming of the skin after exposure to cold temperatures.
Chilblains can affect various body parts, including hands, feet, toes, fingers, nose, ears, and earlobes.
In most cases, it takes about 1 to 3 weeks for chilblains to clear up, especially if it gets warmer. One may experience seasonal recurrences for years. Although, generally, this condition does not cause permanent injury, it may lead to infection. The infection, if left untreated, may end up causing severe damage.
Protecting yourself from cold weather and using lotions in order to relieve the symptoms are the basic steps in the treatment of chilblains.
It is best to avoid the development of this condition by dressing properly during the winter season and limiting exposure to cold.
Symptoms of Chilblains
A person may develop chilblains a short while after being exposed to the cold. If he or she walks into a warm place immediately after being in the cold, the symptoms may aggravate.
A few signs and symptoms associated with chilblains are:
- Burning sensation
- Intense itching
- Redness on the affected area
- Skin in the affected area turning red to dark blue, followed by inflammation
In severe cases, blisters may appear on the affected area and infection and ulceration can also occur.
Causes of Chilblains
When our bodies are exposed to cold, the blood vessels narrow. The narrowed blood vessels expand once again as we return to warm temperature.
In some people, this change from one temperature to another may lead to leakage of blood into nearby tissues.
This causes inflammation and symptoms associated with chilblain. Susceptibility to chilblain increases if the change from cold to warm temperature is abrupt.
It’s not very clear what exactly causes this condition. However, here are a few factors that may increase your risk of ending up with chilblains:
- Having poor blood circulation
- Improper clothing
- Living in a region with a damp climate
- Having lupus or Raynaud’s phenomenon (it may cause its own types of sores)
- Weighing approximately 20 percent less or more than the suitable body weight according to your height
This problem can affect people of any age, but it is more common in children and elderly people. The condition also affects more women than men. Other risk factors include a family history of chilblains and a poor diet.
There are a number of simple remedies and preventive tips that can help reduce the intensity of symptoms or discomfort.
Here are the top 10 ways to heal and prevent chilblains.
- Place your hands and legs on a few pillows to keep them elevated.
- If your nose or ears are affected, sit in a high-backed chair and bend your neck backward.
Daily massages during winter months can also help you deter chilblains. Simply massage your hands and legs gently in circular motions twice daily, in the morning and at night before going to bed. This will ensure good blood circulation and reduce the risk of developing chilblains.
- You can use palm oil or castor oil to massage your hands and legs.
- Another option is to add a few drops of an essential oil like lavender, rosemary, or lemon oil to any good-quality vegetable oil and use the mixture for the massage.
- You can also wrap yourself with a warm blanket and drink a glass of hot chocolate or a cup of warm herbal tea to help your body adapt to warm temperature. Once your body adjusts to the room temperature, gently massage the affected area with warm coconut oil or olive oil to improve the blood flow.
Onion is a popular, age-old remedy for chilblains. It has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antibiotic properties that can help ease symptoms like itching, pain, swelling, and inflammation and reduce the risk of infection.
- Cut an onion into thick slices. Gently rub a slice of onion over the affected area. Leave it on for 15 minutes, and then wipe it off with a warm washcloth. Do this 2 or 3 times a day for 1 to 2 weeks.
- Alternatively, grind 1 to 2 onions into a paste. Apply it all over the affected area and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse the paste off with cold water. Do this a few times daily for 1 or 2 weeks.
Potatoes contain a variety of nutrients and vitamins that are beneficial to the body and good for the skin.
Potato can help reduce the itching and inflammation caused by chilblains due to its anti-irritant and soothing properties. It is also effective in treating blisters that may develop with chilblains.
- Cut a raw potato into thick slices. Sprinkle some salt on the slices and gently rub them on the affected area.
- Boil 1 or 2 potatoes in 2 cups of water for 10 to 15 minutes. Allow the solution to cool down. Soak the affected area in the solution for about 10 minutes.
Follow either of these treatments twice daily for a week.
- Boil a handful of calendula flowers in 2 cups of water and then let the solution simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Allow the solution to cool down and add some sea salt to it. Soak the affected area in this solution for about 15 minutes once or twice daily.
- You can also buy calendula ointment from the market and apply it to the affected areas as directed.
Garlic is another good remedy to alleviate the symptoms of chilblains. Due to its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, garlic can instantly reduce inflammation and itchiness as well as promote quick healing.
- Rub the affected area with garlic oil several times a day to stimulate the blood flow and relieve some of the discomforts.
- Include garlic in your diet.
7. Black Peppercorn
Black peppercorns can also be effective in the treatment of chilblains. These are packed with anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain.
- Grind ½ to 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns thoroughly.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of sesame seed oil and add the ground black peppercorns to it.
- Strain, and allow it to cool down.
- Use this warm oil to massage the affected areas 2 or 3 times daily.
8. Aloe Vera
- Cut open an aloe vera leaf to extract its gel.
- Apply this gel on the affected areas.
- Massage gently to increase the blood circulation.
- Allow it to dry on its own, and then wipe it off with a wet tissue.
- Follow this treatment 1 or 2 times daily until you see improvement.
9. Increased Calcium Intake and Proper Diet
It has been found that calcium deficiency can make a person more susceptible to chilblains. If you have a history of suffering from chilblains during the winter season, increasing your calcium intake may help.
Maintaining a nutritious diet with a variety of fresh vegetables also helps to promote optimal health and reduce inflammation in the body.
- Eat foods high in calcium, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, soybeans, fortified soy milk, fortified orange juice, fortified cereals, broccoli, kale, collard greens, white beans, sardines, and salmon.
- If required, take a calcium supplement after consulting a doctor.
10. Regular Exercise
Poor blood circulation can make you more susceptible to chilblains. To overcome this risk factor, exercise regularly.
Exercise can improve blood circulation to all parts of the body. But before starting any exercise, make sure to warm up gradually with simple foot exercises to get the blood circulating.
- Engage in physical activity for 30 minutes each day. The exercise should be specific to your ability.
- Walking, bicycling, jogging, or swimming daily can help improve circulation.
Here are a few tips to help you avoid chilblains:
- Make sure your surroundings (at home or at work) are warm and comfortable.
- Cover your skin properly when you go out in cold weather.
- Quit smoking.
- Limit exposure to cold.
- Avoid tight clothing. Wear layers of loose clothing instead.
- Wear mittens and warm footwear.
- Make sure your hands, feet, and face are warm and dry.
- In case of exposure to cold, re-warm your skin gradually.
- Massage your toes and fingers with warm oil 2 or 3 times a day to improve blood circulation.
- Avoid rapid changes in temperature (from cold to warm).
- Wear proper warm clothes in cold weather.
- Keep your head and ears warm by wearing scarves and woolen caps.
- Avoid exposure to cold for too long.
- Avoid exposing the skin to any direct heat, especially after exposure to cold.
- Keep the skin moisturized to prevent itching.
- Avoid scratching the affected skin as it can damage the skin.
- Always wear shoes that fit comfortably and use thermal insoles to keep the feet warm.
- Avoid wearing damp clothing.
- Keep your living area and bedroom warm and comfortable.
- Keep your legs warm at all times by wearing full trousers, leg warmers, long woolen socks, or high boots.
- Avoid smoking as it can hamper circulation and increase your risk for chilblains.
- Drink hot beverages several times a day to keep your entire body warm.
- Place cotton or wool between the toes to improve circulation.
- Include almonds, sesame seeds, and cold-water fish in your diet to get essential fatty acids.
When to See a Doctor
In most cases, a chilblain will heal on its own within 1 to 3 weeks when further exposure to cold is avoided.
Healing may be slow or impaired in people who suffer from diabetes or have poor circulation. However, it is best to seek medical attention if:
- You are experiencing unusually severe pain.
- You suspect an infection.
- There is no improvement after a week or two.
- The symptoms don’t go away even in the warm season.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Sandy Skotnicki MD (Dermatologist)
Can chilblains cause any long term damage to the affected skin?
Potentially, they can. If left untreated they can leave scars due to prolonged loss of blood supply to the area.
Are there any special massage oils available which can reduce its growth or recurrence?
Treatment for chilblains doesn’t depend on special massage oils. It is due to prolonged cold temperatures on the feet and hands.
Is poor blood circulation a big factor contributing to the problem of chilblains?
It can be a factor, but I have seen it in young children, in Canada, who walk to school in the winter with running shoes repeatedly and then start to develop painful red bumps on their toes. Elderly patients who have poorer arterial circulation, and walk bare feet or in socks on cold floors repeatedly are also at risk.
Do chilblains and frostbite exhibit the same symptoms?
Yes, but chilblains is less quick and more insidious. They take more time to develop.
Are people with Raynaud’s syndrome more susceptible to chilblains?
Does being calcium-deficient make one prone to chilblain?
I am not sure; I don’t think so.
Please provide some additional tips or inputs regarding chilblains for the benefit of our readers.
Wear proper foot and hand protection in the cold, in particular, if you live in a cold climate, or have Raynaud’s or arterial disease. Repeated exposure to cold will gradually lead to painful red-purple bumps on toes and fingers.
About Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, MD: Dr. Skotnicki is the Founding Director of the Bay Dermatology Centre and is the Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, Department of Medicine in the Divisions of Dermatology, and Occupational and Environmental Health.
Dr. Skotnicki completed her Dermatology training at the University of Ottawa and was awarded her fellowship in Dermatology by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in 1997. She is also a Diplomat of the American Board of Dermatology and a consultant Dermatologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Dr. Skotnicki is also an expert in Allergic Skin Diseases, while also working as a consultant for the Workplace Safety Insurance Board.
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