Chilblains are patches of discoloured (red, blue, white), swollen and itchy skin forming after exposure to cold and damp conditions. The toes are particularly vulnerable. Despite the discomfort, most chilblains don’t cause any permanent damage to tissue. Chilblains only occur in the cold. You are more likely to develop chilblains if you are sensitive to the cold, have poor circulation or sensitive skin.

Although the exact cause of chilblains remains unknown, it is thought to be associated with the body’s reaction to cold weather. The circulatory system is sensitive to temperature. In hot conditions, the body expands blood vessels close to the skin so that excess heat can be lost to the air, thereby cooling the body. In cold weather, these blood vessels constrict to conserve body heat. When this constriction happens rapidly it can starve extremities, damaging capillary beds in the skin causing redness, itching, inflammation, and sometimes blisters.

The symptoms of chilblains are made worse with sudden temperature changes – for example, entering a warm house after being outside in the cold. Similarly, heating cold feet too quickly, by propping them next to a heater or using a hot water bottle, will also exacerbate the condition. It is better to concentrate on warming your whole body instead.

Keeping your entire body warm at all times is the key to preventing chilblains.

Suggestions include:

  • Resist the urge to scratch, as this will further damage the skin.
  • Use calamine lotion or witch hazel to soothe the itching. Your chemist may also supply a suitable product.
  • Cortisone creams can reduce itching and swelling
  • Lanolin or similar, rubbed into the feet, will help retain body heat.
  • Wear woollen or cotton socks.
  • Keep your whole body warm.
  • Gentle exercise will improve circulation to your feet.
  • Stop smoking
  • Avoid long periods of exposure to cold or damp weather.
  • Avoid rapid changes in temperatures (cold to hot)
  • Wear several layers of clothing, which trap body heat more efficiently than one bulky layer.
  • Make sure your shoes are comfortable and well fitted.
  • Keep area dry
  • See a podiatrist for regular professional treatments.
  • Chilblains usually go away within 2-3 weeks. If it continues you should seek medical advice from your Narellan podiatrist.