Chilblains are small itchy, red (and sometimes purple) swellings on the skin, which can become increasingly painful, can swell and then dry out leaving cracks in the skin that expose the foot to the risk of infection. They occur on the toes (particularly the smaller ones), fingers, the face (especially the nose) and the lobes of the ears. They can also occur on areas of the feet exposed to pressure, such as on a bunion or where the second toe is squeezed by tight shoes. They can lead to blisters and break down to become a small ulcer prone to infection.
Chilblains develop when the tiny blood vessels under the skin constrict in cold conditions, reducing the flow of blood until the area warms up again, causing some leakage of fluid into the surrounding tissue. They are caused by the skin’s abnormal reaction to cold, but not everyone develops them as this highly depends on the efficiency of your circulation. People with poor circulation and other health problems involving their blood vessels are likely to be more prone to developing chilblains. In addition, damp or draughty conditions, dietary factors and hormonal imbalance can also be contributory factors. It is thought that rapid temperature changes from cold to hot can also be a cause. If the skin is cool and rapidly warmed up next to a fire or by the use of a hot water bottle, chilblains may occur.
Although chilblains are common, the condition mainly affects young adults working outdoors in cold places or people who do not wear socks in winter. Elderly people, with reduced circulation , people who do not exercise enough, and those suffering from anaemia, are also susceptible.
During the onset of winter, susceptible people will experience burning and itching on their hands and feet. Upon entering a warm room, the itching and burning is intensified. There may also be some swelling or redness and in extreme cases the surface of the skin may break and sores (ulcers) may develop.
If you have developed chilblains do not scratch them, instead use soothing lotions such as Witch Hazel and Calamine Lotion on them to take away most of the discomfort.
If the chilblain has ulcerated (a deep break within the skin) then soak your feet in a warm salt water bath and cover with a clean plaster. If this happens, you should see a Podiatrist immediately.
If the chilblains have not broken, you can paint them with a mixture of Friars Balsam and a weak solution of Iodine, which your pharmacist may make up for you. At night, rub some Lanolin Ointment well into the feet to help retain the heat.
The best way to prevent chilblains is to keep your legs, feet and body warm, especially if your circulation is poor and your mobility is limited.
The whole body, and not just the feet, needs to be kept warm.
If you experience any foot care issues which do not resolve themselves naturally or through routine foot care within a week, it is recommended to seek the help of a healthcare professional as soon as possible.